Utilities, environmentalists dispute timing of mercury standards

By SAODAT ASANOVA-TAYLOR

Capital News Service

LANSING – Environmental protection advocates are urging legislators to support the federal mercury and air toxic standards in the Clean Air Act, but the electric utility industry say, that would create a huge burden.

The standards proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would require coal-and oil-fired electric power plants to reduce mercury and other emissions by more than 90 percent.

Congressional opponents of the proposal say the standards are too costly and would force the premature closing of power plants, eliminate hundreds of jobs and threaten the supply of electricity.

Hugh McDiarmid Jr, communications director of the Michigan Environmental Council, said mercury is dangerous.

“Michigan’s Great Lakes are polluted with mercury. It is going into fish and going into people’s health as they eat contaminated fish. Easing back on mercury regulations now would be foolish,” he said.
Meanwhile, utility companies endorse the environmental protections but disagree with the proposed timetable to install advanced pollution control equipment at their plants.

Mercury can harm the nervous system of fetuses and young children and cause lifelong developmental problems. For adults, even low levels can lead to defects in fertility and cardiovascular systems.

According to McDiarmid, applying pollution protection standards early can be cost-effective both for the environment and public health.

“We want strong pollution protection standards, even more strongly than we want energy efficiency,” he said.

EPA data for 2010 show that 80 percent of airborne mercury pollution in Michigan came from the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants. DTE Energy’s Monroe plant topped the list of the heaviest emitters.

Joel Blum, a professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Michigan, said it’s impossible to ignore the problem.

“The cost to human health and wildlife is too high. It clearly doesn’t justify the financial gain of the power plants,” he said.

Blum is among more than 100 scientists who sent a letter to Michigan’s congressional delegation asking them to support the proposed mercury standards.

David Holtz, executive director for U.S Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Flint, said it makes sense to implement the mercury reduction standards as Michigan moves ahead with economic development.

“Environment and public health are essential parts of our economy. The number of illnesses caused by environmental pollutions is costly,” he said.

EPA said nationwide implementation of the emission standards would prevent up to 17,000 premature deaths, heart attacks, asthma attacks and emergency room visits. It would save as much as $140 billion in health care costs each year.

Brenda Archambo, outreach consultant for the National Wildlife Foundation in Virginia, said the standard could save money for recreation, protection of the state’s wildlife and promotion of tourism.

“Michigan wildlife is closely connected with the tourism industry. Recreation at our lakes is our treasure. We now have pollution control equipment, and it is wrong to continue to pollute the environment,” she said.

According to Archambo, the Great Lakes are not sufficiently protected in case of disasters.

“We saw the chemical spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the Kalamazoo River, and if something like that happens to our lakes, it will be a big disaster for our agriculture and tourism,” she said.

However, Jim Weeks, executive director of the Michigan Municipal Electric Association, said if the standards are implemented nationwide, utility companies will face a shortage of equipment to retrofit their plants on time.

“There will not be enough supply of pollution control equipment. I’m afraid the companies providing the resources will be more focused on the large utility companies, and the small ones will be shut down earlier,” he said.

According to Weeks, EPA should consider costs and benefits and ensure alternative energy reliability.

“If we retire some plants earlier, we hope to have enough of a supply of alternative energy, or we will have to buy it from the wholesale market, which can increase the price for customers,” he said.

Jeffrey Holyfield, executive director of media relations for Consumers Energy, said it is impossible for large-scale projects to complete the work in the proposed three years.

“It takes a minimum of up to three to four years just to do the engineering, designing, equipment arrangements and delivery. The fact that EPA will require this work to be done in a very short time can increase costs. Utilities will be competing for skilled labor and material,” he said.

Holyfield said the time frame should be extended as soon as possible for utility companies to make new arrangements and purchase equipment.

John Austerberry, a senior media relations specialist for DTE Energy, said an extended timeline would allow the company to repower its currently non-working plants and provide a smooth transition from coal-fired plants to natural gas.

“It will allow us to develop good commercial implementation of the equipment and avoid a major loss of the labor force and an increase in electricity rates,” he said.

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