ATLANTA _ The Bush administration on Tuesday said that its plan for reducing mercury pollution from coal-burning power plants will focus primarily on the need to protect children and pregnant women from the toxic metal.
At the same time, the final rules also "will consider the need to maintain America's competiveness," said Michael Leavitt, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator.
He said one of the '`critical questions'' that must be answered in drawing up the final rules is: ``How can we keep electricity prices stable for consumers and businesses and still protect human health?''
Mercury from power plants settles in waterways and accumulates in fish. It can cause neurological and developmental problems in fetuses and young children.
A report last week by several environmental groups, which analyzed EPA raw data, showed that more than half of all freshwater fish sampled from America's lakes could be unsafe for women of childbearing age to eat twice a week.
More than three-quarters of the fish had mercury levels that may be unhealthy for children younger than 3.
The administration's mercury reduction proposals were issued in January. Final rules are expected in March 2005.
Leavitt said the administration will study the health impacts, control technologies and economic consequences of mercury emissions in writing the final rules.
``This is a very complex issue and I want it done right,'' he said in a telephone interview.
The administration's proposals envision reducing mercury emissions about 70 percent by 2018, from the current 48 tons a year to 15 tons. The plan also calls for a cap-and-trade program that would allow power plants to buy and sell the right to emit mercury.
The proposed rules have generated more than 540,000 public comments _ a record, most of them form letters signed by people wanting the proposed rules tightened.
Environmental groups and some of EPA's own consultants say that the emissions could be cut by 90 percent by 2012 with technology already available.
The mercury reductions, along with mandated reductions in the smokestack pollutants nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, are expected to cost industry some $50 billion.
Charles Seabrook writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Cox News Service