WASHINGTON - January 16 - Environmental groups filed opening briefs late last week in a lawsuit challenging weak plans by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that delay reductions of mercury pollution from power plants nationwide and could create dangerous "hot spots" of this powerful neurotoxin across the country.
Earthjustice is representing the Sierra Club, Environmental Defense and the National Wildlife Federation in the lawsuits challenging the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Air Mercury Rule (CAMR), and on January 12 filed opening briefs in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. More than a dozen states also filed briefs last week challenging the EPA rule.
A recent major study by a team of scientists in the northeast -- Mercury Matters -- linked coal-fired power plants to mercury "hot spots" and examined the likely failure of EPA's program to address these hotspots.
"Power plants are the nation's largest source of mercury pollution, yet under EPA's plan, these facilities can delay their mercury reductions for years beyond what the Clean Air Act requires," said Earthjustice attorney James Pew. "This free pass for the polluters means more mercury pollution, more waters made unsafe for fishing and more young children made susceptible to mercury contamination."
Coal-fired power plants collectively account for nearly 45 tons of mercury pollution and about 350,000 tons of toxic air pollutants, such as lead, arsenic and acid gases each year. The airborne mercury eventually deposits into bodies of water and accumulates in fish. It is transferred to humans when we eat these mercury-contaminated fish. Mercury contamination causes developmental problems in young children and newborns, and the EPA has found that one in eight of all women of childbearing age are likely to have unhealthy levels of mercury in their systems.
"All the waters in Ohio -- our Lake Erie watershed and our Ohio River watershed -- are so contaminated with mercury that families have been warned by the state about the dangers of eating the fish," said Marti Sinclair, chair of Sierra Club's National Air Committee and an Ohio resident. "The scourge of power plant mercury has cost Ohio our surface water resources and much of the recreational, economic, and human health benefits that we should be enjoying from Ohio's 60,000 miles of streams and our thousands of lakes."
In 2005, rather than follow the law, the EPA unlawfully removed power plants from a list of industrial sources for which the Clean Air Act requires the strongest air toxics pollution limits. The EPA's plan delays reductions in mercury emissions for decades longer than is possible. Without this current rule, the maximum controls for power plant pollution would go into effect in three years; instead, the agency has created a program it acknowledges will not be fully implemented until sometime after 2020.
"Unfortunately, EPA ignored science and the nation's clean air laws in failing to protect the young children who suffer from the serious health hazards of mercury pollution," said Vickie Patton, senior attorney with Environmental Defense.
The agency's mercury rule sets the stage for a cap-and-trade system for mercury emissions from power plants that is completely unsuitable for reducing mercury levels. A system in which some plants must control mercury pollution, but others may escape having to control mercury pollution can create mercury "hot spots" -- or areas of even greater mercury contamination -- near power plants across the country.
"Eliminating mercury pollution from power plants can be done effectively and inexpensively," said Neil Kagan with the National Wildlife Federation. "EPA has a responsibility to future generations to eliminate these toxic emissions and protect our water and air."
Seven other environmental and public health groups and at least 13 states have also challenged EPA's weak rule.