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Push to replace new US mercury plan

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The nation's new program to regulate mercury may be short-lived.

Several draft bills in Congress – as well as a suit in federal court – are challenging the Bush administration's mercury pollution program, which took effect last year. A key reason, they charge, is that the plan's emissions-trading scheme – which has worked to curb other pollutants that spread far and wide – doesn't work for mercury, which accumulates locally as well as spreading over long distances.

That's why lawmakers on Capitol Hill are preparing bills that would tackle the toxic pollutant in a more direct manner. They aim to reduce mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants by 90 percent, rather than the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) target of 70 percent. The bills also would set up a nationwide monitoring network to track airborne mercury and its effects on the environment.

Democrats and Republicans have offered similar bills before. But three major scientific studies published during the past several months have added urgency to their efforts, they say. The upshot of the research: Unlike pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, airborne mercury is far more likely to drop back to earth close to its source, generating "hot spots" of contamination and accumulating in the food chain.

The research also is cited in a lawsuit 16 states and a handful of environmental groups have filed with the US Court of Appeals in Washington. The suit, initiated two years ago, challenges the EPA's regulatory tack on mercury pollution. Within the past two weeks, the plaintiffs filed opening briefs charging that the EPA is misusing the emissions-trading approach. They also argue that to set up the program, the agency illegally dropped power plants from a list of pollution sources that must face the most stringent controls under the Clean Air Act.

Emissions trading has helped the country dramatically reduce sulfur-dioxide pollution from power plants by establishing a market-based approach. Companies can balance out their big polluting plants either by running much cleaner plants elsewhere or buying pollution credits from other, cleaner utilities. As emission limits tighten, the cost of such credits goes up, encouraging companies to close or retrofit their biggest polluters.


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