WASHINGTON (AP) – Air quality regulators in at least 22 states have concluded that the Bush administration's approach to cutting mercury pollution from coal-burning power plants is too weak and are pursuing tougher measures of their own.
Mercury is a powerful neurotoxin that accumulates in fish and poses the greatest risk of nerve and brain damage to pregnant women, women of childbearing age and young children. Emissions of mercury total about 48 tons a year, most of it in the form of air pollution that winds up in waterways.
The trend of states bucking the Bush administration became apparent Friday, the deadline for states to submit their plans for reducing toxic mercury emissions to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). States' responses were tallied by the National Association of Clean Air Agencies.
''At least 22 states have gone beyond EPA's rule in three ways,'' said Bill Becker, the association's executive director. ''They have either adopted more stringent regulations, accelerated compliance deadlines or restricted interstate trading of mercury. Some have done more than one of those.''
States most frequently chose to require cuts of up to 90 percent in mercury pollution, speed up federal requirements by about three to five years or reject the administration's decision to let companies turn to the marketplace to buy and sell rights to emit mercury.
Becker estimated that the tougher state rules would generally add about $1 a month to the average household's utility bills.
The rest of the states are roughly split among those accepting EPA's regulations as sufficient and those that are still trying to figure out what they plan to do, according to Dan Riedinger, a spokesman for Edison Electric Institute, a utility trade association that favors the EPA approach.
''Clearly, some individual utilities will be able to exceed this level of reduction or may be able to reduce emissions more quickly,'' Riedinger said. But he also said many companies will be hard pressed to meet even the federal requirements because the new technologies are still being tested and manufacturers are reluctant to guarantee they'll work.
The EPA adopted new regulations in March 2005 that the agency said could force mercury reductions of 70 percent by 2018 from coal-fired power plants, the source of 40 percent of the nation's mercury pollution. The agency set a nationwide cap on mercury pollution, and put a ceiling on allowable pollution for each state starting in 2010.
That would allow companies to choose between installing new technologies to trap mercury particles in exhaust vents or paying other companies to instead reduce their pollution.
EPA estimated that with the trading mechanism, mercury pollution from power plants could be cut in half by 2020 at an eventual cost of $750 million a year to utilities and users of electricity. Deeper cuts would take a few more years, the agency said.
Idaho, Rhode Island and Vermont are excluded from any regulations because they have no coal-burning power plants.
The 22 states listed as having tougher mercury-cutting plans than the federal government are: Arizona, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.