Witnesses urge Pa. to put stricter curbs on coal-fired mercury pollution

Witnesses urge Pa. to put stricter curbs on coal-fired mercury pollution

Pennsylvania should enact a state plan forcing coal-fired power plants to cut mercury emissions 90 percent by 2015, rather than adopt less stringent rules favored by the Bush administration, witnesses told a public hearing yesterday.

All but one of 30 speakers who addressed the state’s Environmental Quality Board sitting in Norristown sharply criticized a federal plan that would extend the time frame for the cleaner-air standard.

Under the federal plan, Pennsylvania would reduce its mercury emissions 86 percent, but it would take until 2026 to do so, the Environmental Protection Agency has projected.

In addition, the federal plan would allow utilities to avoid installing mercury-filtering equipment in “dirty” power plants by purchasing pollution credits from cleaner plants in other states, something the state plan prohibits. “Why should Pennsylvanians spend their money to clean up power plants in other states?” testified Christine Knapp, representing Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future, a nonprofit group based in Philadelphia.

Knapp said it was “silly” not to push for the state’s stiffer rules since they would cost consumers a paltry $1.08 a month on their electric bills.

Another speaker, Lisa Zhu of Philadelphia, equated the added cost to the price of a regular, black coffee at Starbucks.

When coal is burned, emissions containing mercury become airborne. Mercury falls to the ground in rain, and collects in the fatty tissue of fish.

Pregnant women who have eaten large quantities of fish over the years may have high levels of mercury in their blood, putting fetuses at risk for learning disabilities and other developmental problems, testified Nathan Wilcox, of PennEnvironment, a nonprofit based in Philadelphia.

“EPA scientists estimate that one in six women of child-bearing age has enough mercury in her body to put her child at risk, should she become pregnant,” Wilcox testified.

On April 11, 2001, Pennsylvania issued a statewide advisory warning fishermen and women to limit intake of their catch to one meal per week to avoid health risks. The advisory is still in effect.

Earlier this year, Senate Bill 1201 and House Bill 2610 were introduced in Harrisburg. Both aimed at blocking the state’s mercury-reduction plan in favor of the weaker federal regulations.

On June 20, the Senate passed its version of the bill by a vote of 40-10. State Sen. Constance H. Williams (D., Montgomery County), who voted against the bill, said she was “disappointed” at the outcome. The House may consider its version of the bill this fall.

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