Debate over mercury-reduction technology rages on

The Bush administration’s release of its Clean Air Mercury Rule this week has reignited debate over how well existing technology can remove mercury from emissions at coal-fired power plants. The rule mandates a 70 percent reduction in emissions by 2018, a number many enviros contend current mercury-removal technology can achieve within three to five years. Utilities argue that current technology is too new and under-tested to justify the millions in investment. Recent tests at one West Virginia power plant indicate that the scrubbers already installed to remove sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides can also remove 98 percent of mercury emissions. But to save money, like many utilities, the plant only uses its NOX scrubber in the summer. Unfortunately, the new rule’s cap-and-trade system isn’t likely to change this, at least until market forces make pollution credits more expensive than the savings from leaving scrubbers idle. Left out of this cost-benefit analysis, as usual, are the health-care savings from reducing mercury in the brains of young children, which no scrubber can remove.