WisBusiness: Utilities, industry will fight proposed mercury rules

By Brian E. Clark

MADISON – The Wisconsin Utilities Association says it will fight proposed new clean air rules from the Department of Natural Resources that DNR believes will result in a 90 percent reduction in mercury emissions from Wisconsin’s coal-fired power plants by 2020.

The association and its allies also will contest another proposal from the DNR that would prohibit Wisconsin utilities from participating in a so-called “cap and trade” national program that would let utilities pay their way out of the reductions.

Environmental, angling and hunting groups have pushed for the tougher restrictions. They note that Wisconsin has a statewide fish consumption advisory that tells consumers — especially children and women of childbearing age — to limit consumption of fish that may be tainted with mercury.

Keith Reopelle, program director for Clean Wisconsin, praised the proposed rules. But he said he is somewhat disappointed that the 90 percent reduction in mercury emissions would not occur until 2020.

He said a similar Illinois regulation takes effect in 2012.“Waiting to 2020 is too long,” he said. “But we are glad they want don’t want to participate in the cap and trade program because we believe mercury emissions from Wisconsin utilities affects Wisconsin lakes and streams.”

Bill Skewes, head of the WUA, said mercury pollution is a worldwide phenomenon and that Wisconsin utilities contribute only 1/40th of 1 percent of the total mercury pollution in the global airstream.

He also said the idea of localized “hot spots” coming from individual power plants has been disputed by scientific studies. And he said Wisconsin utilities need the trading feature as the “best way” to pay to meet state and federal rules.

“We need that economic flexibility,” he said.

Todd Stuart, executive director of the Wisconsin Industrial Energy Group, said the proposed rules are too strict and too expensive.

“You can bet representatives of the utilities and the business community will work against these changes in the mercury rules,” he said.

Stuart said a 2005 study prepared for the Center for Energy and Economic Development forecasts that going beyond federal rules — which require the state to reduce mercury emission some 70 percent by 2018 — would cost several hundred million dollars in Wisconsin.

The report, which was funded by utilities and the coal industry, said the tougher rules could also result in the loss of thousands of jobs.

The DNR’s seven-member board will meet Wednesday in Madison, but the public or industry groups will not be allowed to speak on the proposals, said Jon Heinrich, the DNR’s top mercury regulator.

That’s because the board will only be authorizing the DNR to hold public hearings on the proposed rules, he said. Those hearings would be held over the next few years and the DNR board would not vote on the new rules until around 2010, he said.

Stuart said the WIEG and other business and industry groups are concerned that cutting additional mercury will not provide a great deal of benefit for the environment.

“The (CEED) study was done several years ago, but the bottom line is this will be very expensive,” he said. “We’re concerned that the bang for the buck is pretty low.

”Moreover, he said industry and business groups believed that they had a deal with the DNR. He noted that Gov. Jim Doyle made a campaign promise to the environmental community, and that he is apparently following through on that pledge despite the deal with the DNR.

“We think they are breaking an agreement,” he said. “If the DNR board ultimately approves this down the road, it will have to go to the Legislature, where it won’t get a friendly reception from at least some of the legislators.

“But we do fear it could go into effect,” he said.Though Stuart said business and utility groups are not happy with tougher emission standards, he said doing away with the cap and trade agreement is the least attractive part of the DNR proposal.

“If they leave utilities the ability to trade, the concerns of the business and industry community would be lessened. That would be very, very helpful,” he said.

The DNR’s Heinrich said the state’s mercury emission deal with industry only runs through 2018 and would not be affected by the tougher standards currently under discussion.

He also said states are not required to participate in the national trading program.

“It is only an option,” he said, noting that Illinois, Michigan and 22 other states are declining to take part in the program.

“There are studies on both sides about whether deposition of mercury comes from local sources,” he said.

“And it’s certainly true that mercury emissions are a global problem, but that doesn’t mean something isn’t happening locally.

“Mercury is a pollutant that bioaccumulates and persists in the environment,” he said. “We have a public health problem with mercury in this state and we want to reduce levels of exposure.”