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Mercury Delay

EPA Delays Mercury Regulations

Confronted with a flood of public responses to proposed new regulations to limit the amount of toxic mercury emitted by power plants, the Environmental Protection Agency yesterday extended the comment period by two months and said it would push back final action on the rule to March 2005.

Environmentalists had charged that under the proposed rule it would take too long to reduce mercury emissions generated by coal-fired plants. Mercury is a neurotoxin that can interfere with a child's development if a mother is exposed to excessive amounts during pregnancy.

... "There is some irony in NRDC and others complaining that mercury reductions come too slow and then in the next breath demanding a delay," said Scott Segal, who represents utilities as director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council. "That said, a rule that's too inflexible or makes unrealistic assumptions about control technology will result in too much switching to natural gas, and with natural gas prices as high as they are, that's bad news for consumers, the elderly and industrial competitiveness."

I'm not the NRDC, but perhaps I can help explain the difference between doing something expeditiously and doing something hastily. The NRDC is understandably concerned about the EPA using delaying tactics, particularly in a case like this when even the "bad" rule is worse for the environment and better from industry's perspective than the status quo. However, the EPA has not used its time wisely prior to now, focusing more on consulting industry than doing scientific assessments and consulting with the public. Thus it makes sense to cheer for delay if you can count on the time being used to do the assessment right. Mere delay is bad, delay that contributes to an outcome that's better or more legitimate is good.

By "more legitimate" I mean a process that, whatever its outcome, signals that all concerns and issues were taken into consideration. It's possible that control technology really is so expensive and unreliable, and tat the risks of mercury really are so low. But I'm not prepared to believe that conclusion when the process of coming to it was so questionable. On the other side, there have been numerous occasions when industry representatives get stuck in a mental rut about what kind of things are feasible and beneficial to their bottom line, and in retrospect environmental laws have been useful in forcing them to think outside the box. That barrier may be lowered by a fair process.


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