State eyes new mercury rule for power plants

ATLANTA - Georgia environmental advocates say they are delighted that the state appears headed toward clamping down on mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants.

But several told members of a state Board of Natural Resources committee this week that the proposed mercury rule still needs some work.

The new rule, which the Environmental Protection Committee is sending out for public comment, requires significantly larger reductions in mercury emissions than are being mandated by the federal government.

Under the federal rule, coal-fired plants must cut mercury emissions 20 percent by 2017.

"We are very pleased with Georgia's aggressive approach," said Jim Stokes, president of The Georgia Conservancy.

Coal-burning power plants are Georgia's largest source of mercury, which is released into the air from smokestacks.

Eventually, it gets into the water, prompting advisories warning consumers - especially pregnant and nursing women and young children - to limit their consumption of fish taken from many of the state's lakes, rivers and streams.

Chuck Huling, vice president of environmental affairs for Georgia Power Co., said the utility plans to spend $2 billion during the next five years on pollution control measures to reduce emissions of mercury and other pollutants.

"It's a reflection of good stewardship from Georgia Power," said Tom Wheeler, chairman of the Environmental Protection Committee. "They're talking about cleaning up 90 percent of (the mercury) there."

Wheeler said the state rule also anticipates a faster cleanup than the feds are requiring, with most of the work to be done by 2012.

But several environmental advocates said they weren't fully satisfied with the proposal.

For one thing, the rule would exempt the state's three smallest power plants, located in South Georgia's black water region.

Chandra Brown, executive director of Ogeechee-Canoochee Riverkeeper, said black water rivers are more vulnerable to mercury contamination than other waterways.

"We don't need to be telling people not to eat fish," she said. "We need to be reducing the mercury at its source."

Stokes criticized the rule for not putting specific limits on the mercury power plants seeking state permits are allowed to emit. Instead, it bases limits on the capabilities of the new pollution controls.

But Wheeler said Georgia Power's controls are too new to determine exactly how much they will reduce mercury emissions.

"There isn't as much background with the technology as everybody would like," he said. "(But) it is going to far exceed anything we could make them do."

Wheeler said the small plants in Albany, Savannah and Rincon that would be exempt from the new rule generate so little mercury that it wouldn't be cost effective to enforce it against them.

The full Board of Natural Resources is expected to vote on the proposed rule in March, following the public comment period.