Not so, says the EPA. "What we concluded in the final mercury rule is that for the utility industry ... it was mercury that was the hazardous air pollutant with the greatest concern for public health," says spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman. In the preamble to the new mercury-rule proposal, the EPA concluded that nonmercury toxic emissions "posed no hazards to public health."
But that statement is based on findings of a 1998 EPA study that specifically requested further risk analysis for many nonmercury toxins, says Martha Keating, a senior scientist with the Clean Air Task Force, an environmental advocacy group. It's not clear how the EPA's new finding was reached since it has not conducted further detailed studies of lead, cadmium, arsenic, and other hazardous emissions, she says.
The nation's 400-plus coal-fired power plants emit more toxins into the air than any other single source, some 42 percent of the US total, according to the 2002 Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), the EPA's most recent comparative data. Unlike, say, greenhouse gases, which escape from smokestacks and float into the atmosphere, these toxins often settle on the surrounding land in any direction for 30 miles and more, deposition experts say. Half of all Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-burning power plant, a recent study based on US census data shows.
The sheer quantity of such toxic emissions is staggering. While much has been made of the 48 tons of mercury annually emitted by power plants, these same plants released in 2002 more than 361,000 tons of other toxins including vanadium, barium, zinc, nickel, hydrogen fluoride, hydrochloric acid, ammonia, and selenium, according to a recent report by the National Environmental Trust, an environmental advocacy group.