State wants new rules to reduce mercury

In what they describe as a major undertaking, Kentucky officials are starting to work on regulations that would reduce the amount of mercury put into the air by coal-fired power plants.

John Lyons, director of the state Division of Air Quality, said 10 to 20 states already regulate mercury. Kentucky, he said, would be the first in the Southeast to do so.

Federal regulations proposed by the Bush administration's Environmental Protection Agency have been thrown out by the courts, and developing new ones could take a long time, Lyons said. Kentucky, which had planned to follow the federal lead, has to act on its own, he said.

"We obviously have public health concerns, with the fish advisories and all," Lyons told the Kentucky Environmental Quality Commission late Tuesday.

A statewide advisory issued in 2000 warns people, especially women of child-bearing age and children, to limit consumption of fish caught in Kentucky waters. That's because mercury put into the air from power plants and other sources ends up in rivers and lakes and accumulates in the tissue of fish.

Mercury, a powerful neurotoxin, is especially harmful to children and fetuses.

In September, the state ramped up its fish advisory for Lake Cumberland because tests found higher concentrations of mercury in fish there. The 38,000-acre lake in south-central Kentucky is a popular fishing spot, drawing visitors from several states.

That more-stringent advisory for Lake Cumberland could become the statewide standard because higher levels of mercury are showing up in fish everywhere, said John Brumley, a state Division of Water official.

Mercury gets into the environment from many sources, some of them naturally occurring. But power plants are a major source.

Even if Kentucky starts reducing mercury immediately, it will be found in fish tissue for a number of years, said Bruce Scott, commissioner of the state Department for Environmental Protection.

Lyons, the air-quality director, said he would like to see regulations proposed by the middle of next year. They will have to go through a period of public comment and hearings, and pass muster with legislative committees.

Stronger nationwide mercury regulations were being prepared at the end of the Clinton administration. But the EPA under President Bush tried a different route that environmental groups and some states successfully challenged in court.

The amount of mercury emitted by power plants in Kentucky has decreased in recent years as a side effect of adding scrubbers to reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, other pollutants that are byproducts of burning coal.

One of the hot spots for mercury monitoring in Kentucky is Jessamine County, which is downwind from Kentucky Utilities' E.W. Brown plant on Herrington Lake in Mercer County, Lyons said.

One of the generating units there does not have a sulfur dioxide scrubber, but a scrubber is under construction and scheduled to be completed in 2010.

Chris Whelan, director of communications for Kentucky Utilities' parent company, E.ON US, said her company doesn't think the mercury readings in Jessamine County are that high, and that there are other sources of mercury in the county.

Lyons said it will be interesting to see whether monitors detect less mercury in the air after the scrubber is completed. Whelan said it is expected to cut mercury emissions in half.

But Lyons also said the state might want to go further than depending on the scrubbers for other pollutants to remove mercury.

"We can't ignore the co-benefit, but does it go far enough?" he said.

Whelan said her company's plants are in compliance with current regulations, and will meet new regulations if they are approved.

The few new plants going through the long permit process already are being required to produce 90 percent less mercury than existing plants, Lyons said. The proposed new regulations would apply to existing plants.

Removing more mercury could require additional scrubbers, but utilities could ask the state Public Service Commission to allow them to pass costs on to customers.

Scott Smith, chairman of the EQC, said the news that the state will draw up its own mercury rules is "a significant announcement." The EQC is a seven-member board that advises state officials on environmental matters.

Lyons and other state officials were talking to the EQC about mercury because in 2004, the commission said the state needed to do more to reduce mercury in the environment.

A task force that included representatives from several state agencies issued a report in 2006.

The EQC asked state officials to report on progress made since the report.

The officials said they are working better together, and doing things such as having special days in which the public is asked to turn in old thermometers or vials of mercury for proper disposal.

Commissioners supported those efforts, but commissioner Andrew Ernest said that concentrating on eliminating small amounts of mercury while power plants emit thousands of pounds a year was missing the biggest problem.

"Don't you feel like you're ignoring the 8,000-pound gorilla in the room when you have every waterway in Kentucky impacted by mercury?" he asked.