NV Energy calls report on mercury pollution 'misleading'

With Environmental Protection Agency officials set to develop tougher clean air standards for coal-fired power plants, a statewide watchdog group called for NV Energy to reduce mercury emissions from its Reid Gardner Generating Station near Moapa.

A report released Thursday by Environment Nevada shows Reid Gardner's mercury emissions to be the highest of three Nevada power plants but lower than mercury from power plants in Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Indiana, the top five states for power plant mercury pollution.

Reid Gardner emitted 119 pounds of mercury in 2009, the latest EPA data. The Newmont Nevada Energy plant and the North Valmy Station, both in Northern Nevada, had 104 and 75 pounds, respectively, giving Nevada a total of 298 pounds of power plant mercury emissions.

For comparison, coal-fired power plants nationwide emitted 134,365 pounds of mercury in 2009 with the Martin Lake Steam Electric Station in Texas topping the list, emitting 2,660 pounds, according to a report by the Environment Nevada Research & Policy Center.

"Powering our homes here in Nevada should not come at putting our children's health at risk," said Leah Yudin, state field associate for Environment Nevada.

NV Energy spokesman Mark Severts said the report, which was backed by the Sierra Club, "is certainly nothing new and reflects their national perspective to try to close all coal-fueled power plants nationwide."

Severts said the report is "extremely misleading" because total mercury emissions in Nevada, largely from mining operations was more than 5.2 million pounds, according to the EPA.

"It seems rather disingenuous for them to focus on a power plant that contributed 119 pounds for the year, which is less than one-hundredth of one percent of the state's total mercury output," he wrote in an e-mail Friday.

The plant provides electricity for 335,000 Nevada homes. Company officials plan to extend the aging plant's life span by expanding a landfill for coal-ash waste on public land and putting evaporation ponds on a mesa farther away from the Muddy River, which flows into Lake Mead, Southern Nevada's primary drinking water supply.

The Sierra Club and the Moapa Band of Paiutes, concerned about health and environmental impacts, sued the Bureau of Land Management in November for allowing NV Energy to expand the landfill on public land. A 2004 study on mercury intake referenced in the Environment Nevada report found that one in six women of childbearing age have enough mercury in their bloodstreams to put newborn children at risk.

When mercury is released into the air it eventually winds up in waterways after rain, snow and dust particles wash it out of the air.

"Once mercury is in waterways, it's often converted into methylmercury, an organic form of mercury that builds up in fish and accumulates up the food chain," according to the report. "It is this methylmercury contamination that poses risks to human health and wildlife."

The primary health effect of methylmercury is impaired neurological development, according to the EPA. Because of its adverse effects on a baby's brain and nervous system development, methylmercury can impact a child's cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language and motor skills.

In order to reverse the trend from mercury buildup, in addition to curbing other pollutants released from coal-fired power plants, EPA officials announced Friday that they will have five public "listening sessions" in February and March for ideas on updating the Clean Air Act's pollution standards for power plants and refineries. The sessions will be in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 4 and 23 and March 4; Atlanta, Feb. 15; and Chicago, Feb. 17.

The sessions will address mercury and particle pollution as well as proposed greenhouse gas performance standards using existing clean air technologies for power plants. Proposed standards will be released in July with final standards issued in May 2012.

Environment Nevada's report says EPA officials should implement the strongest standard possible to cut mercury pollution by more than 90 percent.

"That's what we're hoping for," Yudin said.

One clean-air technology -- activated carbon injection -- reduces mercury emissions by putting carbon particles into power plants downstream of their boilers. Mercury attaches to the particles and is collected before it would be released out of a power plant's stacks. Fabric filters, also known as bag houses, can also be used to remove mercury from flue gas streams of power plants.

Amy Beaulieu, of the American Lung Association in Nevada, said the association encourages EPA officials to require power plants to use the best available scrubber filters and pollution controls to remove mercury and particulates.

Said Severts: "Any new mercury control emission requirements that EPA would propose, in all likelihood NV Energy is already meeting them at the Reid Gardner station."

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@review journal.com or 702-383-0308.