Thursday, February 28, 2008

Mercury Rising, Cont.

Mercury continues to make headlines around the Southeast following the Federal Court's decision to scrap the Bush Administration's lax mercury rules for utilities. As a result, the draft air permit for Santee Cooper's Pee Dee plant is now explicitly illegal, and Federal Courts agree that our state owned utility is not doing enough to control its mercury emissions. As the below article from from Wednesday's Myrtle Beach Sun News indicates this is making building a coal plant difficult for another SC utility:

Environmentalists look at mercury emissions to derail coal plants
Associated Press Writer

Duke Energy Corp.'s newest coal-fired power generator will pump 5 1/2 million tons of carbon dioxide into the North Carolina sky every year, outraging environmentalists worried about the threat of global warming.

But for now, as lawmakers wrestle with how best to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, the plant's opponents are focused instead on a few dozen pounds of mercury as they fight to keep it from ever coming online.

Backed in part by a recent court ruling, environmentalists and others see the toxic metal - a powerful neurotoxin that can damage developing brains of fetuses and very young children - as an undisputed threat to the public's health. If successful, they hope mercury could become a new front in their efforts to halt the rapid growth of coal-fired power plants.

"It does give environmentalists another tool, another hook to use when arguing that it's time to phase these things out," said Scott Edwards, a lawyer for the New York-based environmental group Waterkeeper Alliance. "And the law gives us that argument. And public health gives us that argument. And ecological and aquatic health gives us that argument."

Duke's new $2.4 billion generator, at its existing Cliffside Steam Station about 50 miles west of Charlotte, is among more than 20 coal-fired plants now under construction nationwide.

While the rate of construction is the most in more that two decades, environmentalist say they have already helped delay or completely block nearly 60 other projects.

Coal plants provide about 50 percent of the nation's electricity, and a third of the country's carbon dioxide emissions - 2 billion tons annually. While there is talk about a carbon tax or other limits, Edwards said there are not yet any hard regulations on carbon emissions that environmentalists can tap to stop a plant's construction.

Work on Duke's new 800-megawatt unit began last month, the day after state regulators granted the Charlotte-based utility a final air quality permit.

Opponents plan to appeal that decision as early as this week, citing a ruling issued this month by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The court found that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency violated the Clean Air Act when it scrapped a policy that required utilities to install the best available
technology to capture mercury.

Duke spokeswoman Marilyn Lineberger said the company plans to use controls, including using wet and dry scrubbers and filters, that will reduce mercury emissions by 90 percent at the new Cliffside unit. Environmentalists argue technology exists that can reduce emissions by up to 98 percent.

"Before Duke can build this plant, it has to demonstrate it is achieving the highest level of mercury pollution control that is possible with available technology," said John Suttles, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Duke initially proposed in a draft air quality permit to limit the new generator's mercury emissions to 294 pounds a year. That's almost double the 157 pounds currently emitted by five older coal-fire generators now operating at Cliffside, four of which will be shut down when the new generator comes online.

"They came up with a number that was shocking," Suttles said. "I was more than a little agitated when I saw that number. It totally astounded me."

Keith Overcash, director of the N.C. Division of Air Quality, admits regulators didn't object to that increase until environmentalists protested, and opponents are still upset the permit doesn't include a hard cap on mercury emissions.

The 101-page permit includes a promise from Duke to burn a combination of Western and Appalachian coal at a lower emissions rate to keep mercury levels low. Lineberger said the company will have no trouble keeping mercury emissions under 100 pounds per year.

"For them to say the plant won't ever produce more than 100 pounds annually is ridiculous," said Donna Lisenby, director of Catawba Riverkeeper, a group that monitors water quality along the 225-mile Catawba River system. "If the state is serious about protecting the public from the harms of mercury, they would have put an average total pound limit in the permit."

Overcash said the limit was reasonable.

"If they don't meet that on an annual basis, they can be fined," Overcash said. "If they meet that number, the amount of mercury emissions will be in that range we're talking about."

Hans Daniels, executive director of Global Energy Decisions, a private consulting firm that tracks power plants for the U.S. Department of Energy, said the threat of a carbon tax or other emission regulation remains the greatest potential threat to coal-fired plants. While mercury controls add cost to a plant, they are still a known cost.

"That cost can be incorporated in all the other costs. They are added up. And they can determine whether that plant should be built," Daniels said. "For mercury, right now, it probably won't be as big an issue as the uncertainty associated with CO2."

Still, environmentalists aren't alone in their focus on mercury. The metal is among the substances listed in North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper's pending lawsuit against the Tennessee Valley Authority, which accused the nation's largest utility of causing a "public nuisance" in the Smoky Mountains by failing to reduce pollution from its coal-fired power plants. "It's a tremendous irony," said Suttles, the environmental attorney. "In this case, North Carolina has allowed this new facility without forcing Duke to demonstrate what impact this plant would have on the Smoky Mountains. It's within an area that would be expected to - and does, in fact - affect air quality in the Smoky Mountains."

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