MERCURY:

EPA must define 'hotspots,' improve monitoring -- IG report

U.S. EPA should change mercury policies to ensure local areas are not coated with toxic emissions from nearby coal-fired electric utilities, the agency's inspector general says in a report released today.

The 28-page report by acting IG Bill Roderick urges the Bush administration to make several revisions to its mercury control strategy, including changes to the March 2005 regulation now subject to litigation in federal appeals court.

The report urges EPA to explain its definition of a "utility-attributable hotspot" because it appears to fall short of protecting human health. The rule, Roderick says, sets a threshold that allows few power plants to qualify as causing high deposition rates in local water bodies and would block the agency from taking action to force additional cleanup.

Roderick also says EPA must follow through on its promise to fully monitor the effects of mercury transport, transformation and deposition in local water bodies. As it implements a controversial market-based compliance system for reducing U.S. emissions by nearly 70 percent over the next two decades, current EPA models fall far short of what is needed to track and clean up hotspots, the report says.

"Without field data from an improved monitoring network, EPA's ability to advance mercury science will be limited and 'utility-attributable' hotspots that pose health risks may occur and go undetected," the report says.

EPA more than a year ago finalized a first-ever regulation for U.S. power plant mercury emissions. But the agency's opting for the market-based trading program triggered litigation from states and environmentalists concerned the rule left local areas exposed to their nearby utility emissions.

Opponents also say EPA is in violation of the Clean Air Act for dropping a Clinton-era plan to force pollution controls on nearly all coal and oil-fired power plants. The court challenge has been on hold pending an EPA administrative review of the original rule, and a final decision is expected by early next month.

Roderick's report highlights two recent EPA-funded studies, which he said support the need for additional monitoring. Both reports, including research on mercury deposition in Steubenville, Ohio, generated final results not available to EPA officials as they finished the mercury regulation in March 2005 (Greenwire, Feb. 15).

An EPA spokeswoman did not return calls for comment on the IG report. In their written response to a draft of the IG report, EPA's top air pollution and science officials disputed some of the findings about power plant hotspots. A local power plant does not have to be fingered as the main cause of a hotspot before changes are made to the Bush administration's rule, acting air chief Bill Wehrum and science director George Gray wrote.

Both Wehrum and Gray agreed with the IG that additional mercury transport, transformation, deposition and fate monitoring is needed.

Environmentalists said the report underscored how EPA's mercury policies do not protect public health.

"It is clear that the agency's professed concern with 'hot spots' was a sham," said John Walke, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Walke added that EPA requested no funding from Congress in fiscal year 2007 to conduct research on mercury hotspots.

Click here for the IG report.

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