Concern about mercury emissions

September 2004

You may have heard or read something recently about mercury emissions in coal-fired power plants. If you have, it won’t be the last time you hear about this issue. If you are a little bit confused, don’t feel bad. You are in the majority in that regard.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is now drafting new regulations requiring coal-fired power plants to cut their emissions of mercury. The final rules will most likely be put in place some time in 2005, and utilities will be given a few years to bring existing power plants into compliance.

The primary reason for concern about mercury is clear and easy to understand. Coal-fired power plants are one contributor of mercury in the environment and are blamed for contaminating fish in waterways near the power plants. The most severe and frequently discussed problem occurs when pregnant women eat large amounts of contaminated fish during pregnancy. Excessive amounts of mercury have been found to cause damage to the nervous system of unborn babies. When confronted with this type of scenario, no sane person would dismiss the issue of mercury contamination as a non-important issue.

What is not so easy to understand is the level of risk that is present with the existing level of mercury in the atmosphere and in our waterways. Most of us will never have an understanding of what level of risk we are really exposed to. Maybe it is something we should be extremely concerned about, or maybe it ranks low in comparison to all of the risks we live with every day. It really doesn’t matter though because the EPA has determined that it is a risk that needs to be dealt with, and we will deal with it in the near future.

Important to us at this time is the extent that EPA will go to when removing mercury from power plant emissions. Over 50 percent of the electricity generated in the United States is from coal-fired power plants. Over 90 percent of electricity generated in North Dakota is from coal-fired power plants. Removing mercury from the emissions of these power plants will cost billions of dollars, and the cost will be paid by the consumers when they buy electricity. Regardless of what you hear from environmental extremists, this is not an issue about “selfish, irresponsible utilities.” This is an issue about a mandated government solution to a health risk that is being done on behalf of society and will be paid by society.

Most important at this juncture is the percentage of mercury that will be required to be removed from power plant emissions when the new regulations are in place. With the technology available today, the cost will increase dramatically as this percentage is increased. The extreme view in this regard is to remove as much mercury as is technologically possible regardless of the cost. If this view is accepted, the already high cost of compliance will be increased dramatically. For example, the cost of removing 80 percent of mercury from emissions will be much higher than removing 70 percent, but the reduction of health risk might not be much different.

We will be watching closely as EPA comes out with the final rules on mercury emissions. It is no longer a questions of “if” but rather of “when and how much.” For electric consumers in North Dakota, it will result in higher electric rates. Most of us will never know if the actual health risk justified the action that is being taken. We can only hope that the Environmental Protection Agency will use sound judgment when finalizing these rules.