After a last-minute barrage of public protests and private appeals, the Environmental Protection Agency will today end its public comment period on its plan to limit mercury pollution from power plants, one of the Bush administration's most controversial regulatory initiatives.
An array of groups representing utility companies, environmental advocates, and state and local governments have flooded the EPA with nearly 540,000 comments over the past six months -- an agency record -- hoping to influence the nation's first-ever rules governing toxic mercury pollution.
League of Conservation Voters officials have gone door to door and held non-fish "fish fries" in the Midwest, hoping to mobilize citizens by warning of health dangers linked to mercury pollution in the area's waters. Edison Electric Institute officials have been busy writing lengthy technical comments to the agency. A lawyer from San Diego-based Sempra Energy flew in to Washington last week, questioning the data underlying the Bush administration's proposed mercury rules for certain utilities.
Much of the debate centers on how much reduction in mercury emissions the industry can achieve with current technology. The Bush plan aims to reduce the emissions, which total 48 tons a year, by 29 percent by 2010 and 70 percent by 2018. Democrats and some environmental groups, meanwhile, say the federal government should press for a 90 percent reduction by 2009 at the latest.
Spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman said EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt was seeking all available information to determine "how much [reduction] is possible, given the current state of technology. . . . We're looking for the best information to make sure we do it right."
Much of the agency's deliberations are taking place behind closed doors, according to interviews with several EPA officials, and with an unusual degree of White House input. Two EPA officials who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation said political appointees had prevented them from conducting analyses that could have led to different regulatory approaches, including one that would have weighed the costs and benefits of adopting more stringent rules.
"Rather than having sound analysis that informs a rational decision about a rule that would achieve mercury reductions, instead we're getting a politically driven decision propped up by limited analysis," one official said.
Congress first called for mercury emissions standards in 1990, but it took a decade before the EPA determined it could move ahead with regulations. The Bush administration had aimed to complete its rulemaking this year, but that date has slipped until March 2005. The agency twice extended the public comment period, which was set to end March 30.
John Walke, clean air director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which sued the EPA in 1992 over its failure to implement the law, said "the history of mercury regulation of power plants is one of delay and inaction."
Walke is working with his colleagues on a 200-page memo he will submit to regulators today, in which the organization calls for stricter controls on emissions. "The rules they are proposing are weaker than what is technically possible," he said. "We believe the technology and the law both require 90 percent cuts by 2008."
Utility officials are preparing counterarguments. Dan Riedinger, spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, whose member firms generate 70 percent of the nation's electricity, said his group will warn that some of the technology underpinning the proposed reductions has yet to be tested. "When we install it, it has to work," he said.
Larry S. Monroe, emissions control research project manager for Southern Co., said his firm backs the administration's approach -- in which utilities will be able to "trade" pollution credits in order to meet an overall cap -- because dirtier plants will be able to comply with the law by buying credits from cleaner plants rather than investing in costly technology.
But several environmental groups are taking direct aim at the cap-and-trade approach, citing internal EPA projections that it might not produce a 70 percent reduction in emissions until as late as 2025, because some plants might continue emitting more mercury even as they buy credits from cleaner utilities.
League of Conservation Voters activists also have been making Internet appeals to demand deeper cuts: They alone generated 20,000 comments. And the environmental group Greenpeace has been hosting a series of events at hair salons in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, in which they offer free tests to determine the mercury levels in people's hair.
"When you tell people our energy choices are leading to neurotoxins in their body, they're much more likely to listen to you," said Casey Harrell, Greenpeace's energy and toxics campaigner.