Battling the Toxicity of Coal-Burning Power Plants

'Clear Skies' gets shot down, and Legislators try to cut the crud in Texas

Another day, another battle with the forces of toxic evil. Such is the lot of environmentalists, who last week won a major battle when SB 131, the president's "Clear Skies" bill to revamp the Clean Air Act, died in a U.S. Senate committee. Republican Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, independent Jim Jeffords of Vermont, and all the Democrats in the committee opposed Clear Skies because it would extend deadlines for plants to meet clean-up targets until 2018; eliminate New Source Review, which requires that plants invest in modern pollution controls when they expand; set relatively low limits for emissions of nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and mercury; and not address carbon dioxide emissions, the main culprit in global climate change.

The victory, however, merely shifts the ball into the court of the Environmental Protection Agency, which this week will finalize new rules regulating mercury emissions in coal-burning power plants. Mercury is a proven neurotoxin with a long-ass shelf life: It builds up in the food chain, and gets into humans through tuna sandwiches, fish tacos, and other seafood delights. When eaten by pregnant women, it causes brain damage and birth defects in developing fetuses.

Now, Texans love their fetuses, but not enough currently to protect them from unnecessary IQ loss through mercury exposure. Texas is responsible for 11% of the nation's mercury emissions, much of it in "hot spots" around coal-burning plants in East Texas. (For Austinites, the closest source of mercury is San Antonio's three coal-burning plants at Calaveras Lake; a fourth plant is currently in the permitting process.) The "hot spot" factor makes environmentalists particularly irate that the EPA rules would allow plants to "trade" mercury emissions, allowing less-polluting plants to sell allowable pollution "credits" to heavier-polluting ones. "That would allow utilities to simply buy their way out of clean-up," said Karen Hadden of the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition.

No matter which way the EPA rules go, some Texans are trying to fight mercury on their home turf. Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, have filed bills (SB 1623 and HB 2577, respectively) that would require coal-burning plants to reduce mercury emissions to 10% of 2002 levels by 2008. And while the bills would allow facilities to trade sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, they would prohibit mercury trading. Also, HBs 1878 and 1879 by Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, would require grocery stores to post warning signs and allow toxin tests at seafood counters, so that women hoping for a Baby Einstein will know when to lay off the hamachi rolls.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Clear Skies, Clean Air Act, Judith Zaffirini, Eddie Rodriguez, Environmental Protection Agency, mercury emissions, fetus

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