2009-02-05 / Local & State

Pa. Judge Tosses State Mercury Pollution Rule


HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - A judge threw out a pollution regulation that made Pennsylvania the first major coal-mining state to require coal-fired power plants to cut mercury emissions beyond levels set by federal standards.

Commonwealth Court Judge Dan Pellegrini ruled Thursday that the rule is unlawful, invalid and unenforceable. The twoyear old rule was challenged by Allentown-based PPL Corp., which owns two coal-fired power plants in the state, near Danville in north-central Pennsylvania and on Brunner Island along the Susquehanna River in southcentral Pennsylvania.

A judge last year struck down the federal mercury regulation on which Pennsylvania based its standards, and ruled that the Bush administration improperly removed mercury from a list of hazardous pollutants.

That means Pennsylvania's mercury rule now violates a state law that prohibits it from regulating pollutants that are on the list, Pellegrini ruled.

PPL spokesman George Lewis said the company was worried about wasting millions of dollars on pollution control equipment to meet a state standard that may be erased or preempted once the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as expected, writes a federal regulation to control mercury.

"It really for us is a question of certainty and knowing that the upgrades we make, the technology we put in our coal plants, will be the right ones ... and not an interim measure that we'll have to take out,'' Lewis said.

Gov. Ed Rendell's administration issued a statement that said it was deciding whether to appeal. It warned that Pellegrini's decision threatened to derail plans by a number of coal-fired power plants to install pollutioncontrol equipment.

It "further puts the public health and the environment at risk,'' the administration said.

The Democratic governor won the regulatory approval of the mercury rule after several years of heavy lobbying and biting debate. The state's power plant owners had opposed it, while environmentalists, sportsmen's organizations and medical professionals had supported it.

A top aide to Sen. Mary Jo White, the Republican chairwoman of the Senate's Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, criticized the Rendell administration's conduct, and said it still has the opportunity to negotiate a reasonable mercury rule with legislators.

"The court's ruling, coupled with the past unwillingness of the administration to negotiate a more reasonable mercury plan with the General Assembly, means that today Pennsylvania lacks an enforceable mercury reduction plan,'' said White's aide, Patrick Henderson.

Under Pennsylvania's rule, the state's three dozen coal-fired plants had until 2015 to reduce their mercury emissions by 90 percent over 1999's emission levels.

Smokestack mercury accumulates near power plants, working its way up through the food chain, accumulating in plants, fish and humans, state officials say. Children and fetuses are particularly vulnerable to effects of the toxic metal, which can damage the development of the nervous system, according to the EPA.

Mercury is a major reason behind warnings by state officials against eating more than one fish a week from Pennsylvania waterways, which has changed the habits of some anglers.

"The decision is a real blow to the health and development of Pennsylvania's children and our anglers will now have to worry about eating fish caught in Pennsylvania's waters,'' said Jan Jarrett of Harrisburg-based environmental advocacy group PennFuture.

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