WASHINGTON - Many of America's coal-fired power plants lack widely available pollution controls for the highly toxic metal mercury, and mercury emissions recently increased at more than half of the country's 50 largest mercury-emitting power plants, according to a report Wednesday.
The nonpartisan Environmental Integrity Project reported that five of the 10 plants with the highest amount of mercury emitted are in Texas. Plants in Georgia, Missouri, Alabama, Pennsylvania and Michigan also are in the top 10.
The report, which used the most recent data available from the Environmental Protection Agency, found that mercury emissions increased at 27 of the top 50 plants from 2007 to 2008. Overall, power plant emissions of mercury decreased 4.7 percent in that timeframe, but that amount was far less than what would be possible with available emissions controls, the report said.
Coal-fired power plants are the largest source of mercury pollution, generating more than 40 percent of U.S. emissions. Mercury released into the air settles in rivers and lakes, where it moves through the food chain to the fish that people eat.
Mercury exposure can harm the brain development of infants and children. Each year more than 300,000 babies may have an increased risk of learning disabilities as a result of exposure to mercury before birth, the report said.
"Even though the technology exists today to dramatically reduce the mercury pollution, the U.S. power industry has delayed cleanup and barely made a dent in the power plant emissions," said Ilan Levin, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit organization that promotes stronger enforcement of anti-pollution laws.
"Delay by both the EPA and the electric power industry is what has caused this," he said.
Mercury emissions in some states have declined as power plants have added pollution controls for sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter that have a side benefit of reducing mercury as well. Some of the pollution controls were added as a result of settlements of lawsuits seeking enforcement of federal and state regulations.
Dan Riedinger, a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, an industry group of shareholder-owned utilities, said power plant operators were cooperating with the EPA by providing the data on the amount of mercury going out of their plants' stacks. As plants are required to install controls for other pollutants, mercury emissions also are reduced, he said.
Some pollution controls that haven't been fully tested yet will bring much greater reductions of mercury in the future, Riedinger said. "But the majority of the reductions will take place once EPA has determined the level of reductions that it thinks necessary."
Since 1990, the EPA has been required under the Clean Air Act to impose controls on many forms of air pollution, including mercury. To date, however, there is still no national regulation to limit mercury pollution.
"Controlling mercury emissions is a high priority for EPA. The agency is in the process of developing a strategy to reduce these harmful emissions which threaten the air we breathe," said spokeswoman Catherine C. Milbourne.
The EPA is working on a mercury reduction rule for power plants and has agreed in a court settlement to complete it by November 2011. The agency adopted a cap-and-trade scheme of tradable mercury emission allowances in 2005, but a federal court ruled that it didn't comply with the clean air law and threw it out in 2008. The EPA also is working on regulations for mercury and other toxic air emissions from other sources, such as cement plants and industrial boilers.
U.S. power plants emitted 44.7 tons of mercury in 2008. The EPA had forecast in 2005 that it was possible to reduce mercury emissions to 15 tons per year under the Bush administration's plan and the use of pollution controls aimed at reducing smog and soot. The new report said that stricter requirements could reduce it to five tons a year.