The Mirant power plant on the Potomac River in Alexandria could be exempted from rules requiring that it reduce the amount of toxic mercury it emits into the environment each year, under a perceived loophole in the Bush administration's "Clear Skies" bill, according to a study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG).
According to the report, the bill could exempt 39 percent of the nation's coal-fired power-plant boilers from regulation. Mirant's Potomac River plant emits 83.5 pounds of mercury into the air each year -- the second highest amount of any plant in the country that would qualify as exempt, the report said.
The U.S. Public Interest Research Group says the Mirant power plant, which emits mercury, could be excused from rules requiring emission reductions.
(Larry Morris -- The Washington Post)
But the study has been criticized by plant officials and the chairman of a U.S. Senate committee who co-sponsored this year's Clear Skies bill.
Power plants release about 48 tons of mercury into the air each year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Some of that mercury makes its way into waterways and the food chain, where it is consumed by humans. Experts say exposure can result in disabilities, developmental delays and attention deficits in children, as well as heart attacks and other problems for adults. As a result, 45 states have posted fish consumption advisories for mercury.
The proposed Clear Skies bill is President Bush's bid to rewrite federal air pollution laws by setting up a cap-and-trade system that allows industries to decide where to focus pollution control efforts. The bill has stalled in a Senate committee, although key changes in it are being put in place through EPA regulations.
EPA officials responded to the U.S. PIRG study in a prepared statement issued to the media. "The provision referred to in the U.S. PIRG report was not part of the Administration's Clear Skies bill" but was inserted during congressional deliberation, officials said. "The EPA has been working with Senator [James M.] Inhofe to develop legislation that meets the President's criteria for Clear Skies." Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma, chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
If the Clear Skies bill were passed and signed into law, U.S. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) said Mirant's Alexandria plant would be among the worst mercury offenders in the nation.
"It's so grossly inexcusable," Moran said. "And this [Alexandria] plant . . . is right in Bush's own neighborhood. I guess they keep their windows closed and fly [their fish] in from France."
Mirant Corp. spokesman Steven Arabia characterized the loophole claim as "a label designed to garner attention," adding, "We look to those people whose job it is to protect the public health and the environment to provide the guidance and regulations to meet environmental requirements."
Public interest advocates say the loophole is centered on language in the bill that excludes power-plant boilers from regulation if they emit 30 or fewer pounds of mercury a year.
According to the U.S. PIRG report, the language could exempt 441 of the 1,120 of the nation's mercury-emitting power-plant boilers from regulation because they fall below the 30-pounds-per-year threshold. Together, those 441 boilers emitted 4,971 pounds of mercury into the air in 1999, according to the most recent data available from the EPA.
In Virginia, 50 percent of the state's 36 mercury-emitting boilers could be exempt from regulation, the report said. Plants such as Mirant's Potomac River facility -- which has five boilers, each emitting less than 30 pounds of mercury a year -- could be exempted from the regulation entirely.
The report was blasted by Inhofe, a co-sponsor of the Clear Skies bill who denounced as "flat wrong" the study and U.S. PIRG's additional claims that the loophole could allow increased emissions from power plants.
"This so-called study, issued by a left-wing political group more interested in partisanship than sound environmental law, is not worth the trees cut down to print it," Inhofe said in a prepared statement released to the media.