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EPA seeks to reduce mercury from power plants

Two tribes with coal-fired power plants on their reservations will see mercury pollution reduced by more than half under a new Environmental Protection Agency rule released on Tuesday.

The Navajo Nation and the Northern Ute Tribe of Utah were included in the Clean Air Mercury Rule that seeks to drastically cut power-plant emissions over the next 15 years. Officials said the plan will alleviate health and environmental concerns over a chemical that can cause problems for pregnant women and young children.

"This rule marks the first time the United States has regulated mercury emissions from power plants," said Steve Johnson, the acting administrator of the EPA.

The rule sets targets for the two tribes to meet in order to curb what Johnson called a "global program" that "knows no boundaries." Mercury emissions from power plants can travel long or short distances and end up in lakes, rivers and other waterways, where they build up in fish that is eventually consumed by humans.

According to the EPA, two power plants on the Navajo Nation -- the Navajo Generating Station and the Four Corners Power Plant -- and the Bonanza Power Plant on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in Utah are not major polluters compared to plants in other states. Nevetheless, the rule seeks to cut mercury emissions on both reservations by more than 50 percent by 2020.

The two tribes were the only ones included in the plan but the EPA said others will be addressed on a "case-by-case" basis in the future. The Crow Tribe has been looking for investors to start a coal-fired on its reservation in Montana and the Hopi Tribe of Arizona has considered such a facility.

The EPA also patched up an oversight in the proposed rule that failed to recognize tribal sovereignty. Under the Clean Air Act, tribes can seek approval to be treated the same as states for regulating air quality, so the final rule requires the EPA to take into account tribal standards in those instances.

The changes mean tribes can take part in the controversial "cap-and-trade" system implemented by the rule. Environmental groups say the approach favors the industry because it allows power plants to buy and sell the right to pollute.

Under the rule, each state or tribe sets its own limit -- called a "budget" by the EPA -- to reduce pollution. The budget will contain goals for each power plant but the facilities that exceed the limits can buy pollution "credits" from those that don't.

"Such a 'cap-and-trade' approach to limiting [mercury] emissions is the most cost effective way to achieve the reductions in [mercury] emissions from the power sector," the EPA said in documents yesterday.

State and federal efforts to control pollution by coal-fired power plants have already affected tribes. The Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe are fighting to keep the Mohave Generating Station in Nevada open even though it is located over 270 miles from their lands in northeastern Arizona. The tribe say they will lose revenues and jobs from mines on tribal land that supply coal to the station.

High levels of mercury and other toxics also have been found in fish consumed by treaty tribes in Washington. The EPA warned tribal members not to eat salmon for fear of increasing the risk to cancer.

According to EPA, 40 percent of mercury emissions come from power plants. Yesterday's rule is the firs time the government has addressed them.

Clean Air Mercury Rule:
Preamble | Text | Fact Sheet

Relevant Links:
Clean Air Mercury Rule -