In May, Minnesota signed into law a mercury emission standard for its six biggest coal-fired power units—a rule stricter than that proposed by the federal government. In April, 11 states, the District of Columbia, and three environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, filed suits against the EPA for not regulating carbon dioxide. Late last year, seven northeastern states announced their participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative to reduce power plant emissions of carbon dioxide, a key driver of global warming. An eighth state, Maryland, will become a full member next year; this March, it adopted what is described as “the strongest power-plant cleanup bill ever passed by a legislative body in America.” Eight states (and Canada) have adopted California “clean car” legislation, which calls for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles. And in April, Idaho adopted a two-year moratorium on coal-fired power plants, establishing a “zero new mercury emissions” limit. One state senator said that he’d received a “wheelbarrel-full” of e-mails in support of the ban.
Actions like these show that states are taking aggressive stances on environmental protection as the federal government is going in the other direction. The irony, says Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope, is that “theoretically, getting power down to the state and local level is what [the Republican leaders in Washington] stand for.”
“What’s most interesting about all this pro-environmental activity in the states is that it isn’t confined, or even concentrated, in liberal states with liberal governors,” writes Pope on his blog, “Although it is happening in places like Vermont, New Jersey, and Illinois, it actually seems to be concentrated in more conservative states with Democratic governors, and in more liberal states with Republican governors.”
Case in point is the state-level action on mercury emissions. In 2005, the federal EPA proposed the Clean Air Mercury Rule, a set of regulations that would ultimately cut coal-fired power plant mercury emissions about 70 percent by 2018 and establish a mercury pollution credit trading regime. In response, Tim Pawlenty, the Republican governor of Minnesota, said, “The goal the federal government has set is too low and too slow.”
The goal of Minnesota’s phased plan is higher and faster than the EPA’s: 90 percent reduction from its six largest coal plant units by 2014. Those six units release about two-thirds of the state’s mercury emissions. And Minnesota is not alone, as several other states have passed or are seriously considering similar rules, including Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia, and Montana. Mercury is a neurotoxin that can sicken adults and severely affect the development of children and fetuses; people consume it in contaminated fish. The single largest man-made source of mercury pollution in the U.S. is from power plant emissions. In a national hair sampling project, which the Sierra Club helped conduct, preliminary results show that one in five women has higher mercury levels than the EPA’s recommended limit.
Minnesota’s mercury regulations come after years of organizing by groups like the Sierra Club’s North Star Chapter, working with volunteers and the Mercury Free Minnesota Coalition. The coalition negotiated with state offices and utilities to formulate the plan, which sailed through both state houses with unanimous approval from lawmakers.
“Minnesota is the ‘Land of 10,000 Lakes,’” says Christopher Childs, the chapter’s conservation chair and clean air co-chair, “You basically don’t find a body of water in Minnesota that doesn’t have mercury contamination in the fish.” Brian Pasko, the chapter’s legislative coordinator, credits public demand for sparking the state government’s support for strict mercury rules. Furthermore, Pasko notes, “The mantra throughout the [legislative] session was that Minnesota needs to be a leader and we need to do better than the federal standard.”
While Minnesota’s mercury plan enjoys widespread support, similar proposed rules in Pennsylvania face tougher opposition from utilities, coal mining interests, and a conservative legislature. “We would be the first coal-producing state to have a mercury rule in place,” says Jeff Schmidt, the Pennsylvania Chapter senior director.
The Sierra Club and 60 other organizations, led by umbrella group PennFuture, petitioned the state to take regulatory action in lieu of the weaker federal standards. The Club’s Building Environmental Communities program, with organizers like Annie Leary of the Philadelphia office, worked with the chapter to gather 10,000 signed postcards to the administration of Governor Edward Rendell to show the strong public support for a state mercury rule. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) agreed, and has now proposed a rule that requires a 90 percent reduction in mercury emissions by 2015.
Despite this advance, the Pennsylvania legislature is considering bills that would require the state to stick with the federal rules.
In his efforts to preserve these stricter rules, Schmidt has been telling legislators that by supporting the federal rules, they are locking Pennsylvania into an illegal plan. Since it allows pollution trading, plants that haven’t upgraded their facilities can continue emitting mercury by buying pollution “credits” from plants that are up to code. “While the Clean Air Act does allow trading for pollutants like nitrogen oxides or sulfur dioxide,” says Schmidt, “it does not allow for trading of pollutants considered toxic. And mercury is definitely considered a toxic pollutant under the act.” Trading, he says, means a power plant can “buy its way out of cleaning up”—and Pennsylvania’s power industry currently purchases more pollution credits than any other state. “The consumers of Pennsylvania are seeing their electric rate money being sent to other states to clean up their plants, rather than being spent here in Pennsylvania.”
If Pennsylvania lawmakers won’t listen to Schmidt, they may still listen to voters. In early June, PennFuture released a poll showing that 80 percent of Pennsylvanians support the state’s mercury rule, and 63 percent are less likely to vote for a legislator who does not support the rule.
The federal government may not be acting on citizen concerns about mercury and global warming, but a growing number of states are. On June 11, the effort to stop global warming got another boost when the Western Governors Association passed a resolution, with bipartisan support, calling for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. As California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, quoted in the Los Angeles Times, says: “This is not us versus the federal government as much as we say, ‘Look, we have it happening in our states, and we can make an impact…And if we join forces we can make more of an impact.’”
Photo by Annie Leary
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