WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court said Friday that the Bush administration ignored the law when it imposed less stringent requirements on power plants to reduce mercury pollution, which scientists fear could cause neurological problems in 60,000 newborns a year.
A three-judge panel unanimously struck down a mercury-control plan imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency three years ago. It established an emissions trading process in which some plants could avoid installing the best mercury control technology by buying pollution credits.
Environmentalist and health experts argued that such a cap-and-trading mechanism would create “hot spots” of mercury contamination near some power plants. Seventeen states as well as environmental and health groups joined in a suit to block the regulation, saying it did not adequately protect public health.
Power plants are the biggest source of releases of mercury, which finds its way into the food supply, particularly fish. Mercury can damage developing brains of fetuses and very young children.
Several companies are building or plan to build coal-fired power plants in Nevada.
Sierra Pacific Resources, parent of Nevada Power Co., has proposed a $3.8 billion, 1,500-megawatt power plant and transmission line in Ely. LS Power Group is developing a $2.5 billion, 1,600-megawatt plant near Ely. Sithe Global Power wants to build a $1.3 billion, 750-megawatt plant near Mesquite.
Starla Lacy, director of environmental services for Sierra Pacific, said it’s too soon to determine how the federal court’s decision will affect the company’s development plans.
The power plant LS Power has proposed would have mercury-emissions controls that would push its output of the heavy metal 80 percent below federal standards, said Eric Crawford, an assistant vice president at LS Power.
But even with the controls, the LS plant would need to participate in some cap-and-trade transactions, because the federal goal is a reduction of mercury releases nationwide. Until he has time to examine the court’s ruling, Crawford said, he’s not certain if it will affect what little credit-buying LS will require in Nevada.
He added that he’s “not worried at all” about the court’s findings imperiling the proposed plant’s future.
Officials at the Nevada Public Utilities Commission also said they couldn’t yet discuss the ruling.
“It would be really speculative of us to comment on what effects it will have,” said Luke Busby, an administrative attorney with the commission.
Review-Journal writer Jennifer Robison contributed to this report.