Mercury emitters rush to meet new U.S. rules

USA Today – October 29, 2007
By Larry Wheeler, Gannett News Service
CHESTER, Va. — The big power plant that hugs the shoreline of the winding James River just south of Richmond is getting bigger.

Construction of a sprawling pollution-control project will almost double the size of Dominion Resources’ Chesterfield plant, which supplies electricity to about 300,000 homes and businesses in central Virginia.

When it’s all over, the complex — including metal towers, a tile-lined wet scrubber and a towering new chimney — will cut the plant’s emissions of mercury and other pollutants by an estimated 90%.

Just six years ago, the coal-burning plant was one of the nation’s largest mercury polluters, releasing 1,300 pounds of the metal into the air. But even before the new pollution controls could be installed, the plant’s mercury output was cut to 360 pounds in 2005. While the plant is now burning coal that is lower in mercury content, part of the reduction is explained by more accurate emissions estimates.

The work is part of a $2 billion investment that Dominion committed to after reaching a settlement in 2003 with the Environmental Protection Agency, which threatened to sue the company over emissions.

That decision put Dominion in front of the rest of the industry, now rushing to install similar pollution-control equipment to meet federal and state regulations.

“For us, the right decision was to go early,” says David Heacock, a senior vice president with Dominion.

Preparing for new standards

From Pennsylvania to Texas, power plants — and other industries that release mercury into the air — are trying to clean up their smokestacks as new federal and state emissions regulations loom. The EPA’s new Clean Air Mercury Rule, effective in 2010, gives energy companies until 2018 to cut mercury emissions to an industrywide 15 tons.

The nation’s biggest industrial source of mercury air emissions in 2005 was the Martin Lake Steam Electric Station and Lignite Mine in eastern Texas, according to a USA TODAY analysis of the most recent EPA Toxics Release Inventory.

The Martin Lake plant’s trio of 1970s-era coal-burning boilers poured 1,705 pounds of mercury and mercury compounds into the air in 2005, slightly more than the nation’s next biggest mercury emitter, the Barrick Goldstrike Mine in northern Nevada.

“These are large plants that are running all the time, so they have larger emissions,” says Tom Kleckner, a spokesman for Luminant Power, which owns the Martin Lake plant and several others also high on the list of mercury emitters.

The company has committed $500 million for new pollution-control devices specifically targeting mercury emissions, Kleckner says.

The company predicts a 20% cut in mercury emissions by 2011, even as it adds three new coal-burning plants to its current fleet of nine, Kleckner says.

Coal-burning power plants aren’t the only large-scale sources of mercury emissions. Gold mines, cement kilns, chlor-alkali plants and steel mills also release large amounts. There are no federal mercury emissions regulations for those industries.

At the Barrick Goldstrike Mine, near Elko, Nev., mercury air emissions have already been reduced from levels reported in 2005, says Rich Haddock, a company vice president. After a new device was installed on a mine kiln, mercury air emissions dropped to 625 pounds in 2006, according to a draft of EPA’s 2006 Toxics Release Inventory.

Nevada has a mercury emissions-control regulation specific to mining operations.

An explosion of emissions

Mercury emissions from the Ash Grove Cement Co. plant near Durkee, Ore., appear to have exploded from less than 200 pounds in 2000 to 1,539 pounds in 2005, according to TRI data. Last year, the eastern Oregon cement plant released even more mercury into the air — 2,582 pounds, according to the EPA’s draft.

The growth reflects increasingly accurate real-time measurements of the mercury escaping from plant chimneys, says Fran Streitman, Ash Grove’s vice president for environmental affairs.

In late September, Ash Grove officials announced plans to invest $15 million to install an experimental mercury pollution-control device on their Durkee plant.

The EPA is developing mercury emissions standards for the cement industry.