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In bid to cut mercury, US lets other toxins through

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Perched along the James River fewer than 30 miles from Irving and Donna Wright's Virginia home, a coal-fired power plant sends up a plume of exhaust. When the wind blows their way, it deposits heavy metals and other toxins that the Wrights say may have harmed their son Joseph.

So the couple was gratified when the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced last month the first federal crackdown on mercury emissions from power plants. But the Wrights' joy soured after they discovered the same ruling did nothing about lead, chromium, or arsenic. In fact, the new rule backs away from any possible new regulations on emissions of more than 60 heavy metals and toxins, say environmental experts. Overall, it's a step backward in cleaning up the air, they charge.

Such concerns have been nearly lost in the debate over the EPA's new Clean Air Mercury Rule. But they are quickly reaching the boiling point. A growing number of states say they will probably file suit in federal court in coming weeks to overturn the mercury rule - in no small measure because of its outsized impact on other pollutants.

"If the public impression is that this is just about mercury, that's wrong - it's about all the other hazardous air pollutants that power plants emit," says James Pew, a staff attorney with Earthjustice, a public-interest law firm in Oakland, Calif. "Power plants are big toxic emitters. And with this mercury rule, EPA is letting them completely off the hook."

At the heart of the debate over the new mercury rule is the rule's reversal of a 2000 EPA decision. Under the Clinton administration, the agency added electric utilities to a critical list of industries considered to be major sources of hazardous air pollutants such as lead and arsenic. The new mercury rule "de-lists" utilities. But in the eyes of many, that original listing still constitutes a legal requirement for power plants to eventually control these toxic emissions.

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