Mercury Rising, Part 1

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When EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt was in Cleveland last December to roll out new proposals for reducing mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants, he was met with a storm of protest. Local environmental groups and city officials were outraged that the Bush administration was not adhering to earlier determinations that said mercury cuts could be made deeper and faster. But Administrator Leavitt said that's just not possible.

Mike Leavitt: Those who suggest that we should reduce it by 2007 by 90% ignore the fact that the technology they suggest that we use to do that does not exist yet.

Instead, the EPA made two separate proposals, both extending the deadline for reducing emissions. One calls for cuts of 40% by 2010 at each and every coal-fired plant around the country. A second proposal would cap emissions nationally at 90% less than current levels to be achieved by 2018. Utilities that couldn't meet the 90% reductions would be allowed to buy pollution credits from those that emit less.

But Sid Nelson, president of Sorbent Technologies, says his company has developed a process that will deliver big cuts in mercury now.

Sid Nelson: 80 to 85 is not difficult. We can do that very cost-effectively. We can do 90% removal, on some streams we've gotten 95.

At his lab in the Cleveland suburb of Twinsburg, Nelson has constructed a test model of a coal-fired furnace flue. Into it, he injects a sorbent, a form of activated carbon known as COHPAC that captures the mercury and binds it. The resulting fly ash can then be safely disposed of in a landfill or recycled in concrete. That in itself isn't new. But Nelson says he's added a special ingredient. He's found that passing bromine gas through the carbon reduces the amount of sorbent needed to sequester mercury, dramatically reducing the cost.

Sid Nelson: If you look at the Department of Energy, they cite it will cost $50-to-$70,000 per pound of mercury removed. That's what COHPAC costs. We're seeing costs in the range of $3-to-$10,000. Our sorbents will save the country at least a billion dollars a year.

So why aren't companies flocking to Sid Nelson's firm to tap into the new process? Ellen Raines, a spokesperson for FirstEnergy Corporation, says her company has been following tests of the new technology and admits the results look promising. But she says FirstEnergy along with other utilities also needs to reduce harmful emissions of nitrogen oxide and sulphur dioxide.

Ellen Raines: There will be some benefits in complying with the NOx and SO2 that could change our compliance requirements for mercury.

Scrubbers that remove these emissions can also reduce mercury from coal-plant smokestacks, so many utilities are looking at technologies that offer multiple benefits. But the price tag - estimates range between $60-and-$90 million - may not be attractive for retrofitting older plants. Bill Wehrum of the U.S. EPA's Office of Air and Radiation in Washington says there's another reason why cheaper processes like Sorbent Technologies' version of activated carbon injection need further study.

Bill Wehrum: There actually is a lot of variation in the industry in terms of the coals that people use and the way in which they combust those coals. So in order to answer the question of how good is ACI and to answer that question definitively, it's going to be necessary to do a lot of testing on a lot of different power plants with a lot of different kinds of coals.

Sorbent Technologies has already begun those tests. With funding from the Department of Energy, the company has done trials on small generation facilities in Ohio and North Carolina and plans two large scale tests this year. Sid Nelson says so far his sorbents seem to work well on all types of coal. But there's one more reason why Nelson's process may not go commercial anytime soon. And that's politics, says Sterling Burnett, senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis in Dallas, Texas. The new mercury regulations must be finalized by mid-December, but a change in administration could mean more delays.

Sterling Burnett: Those are always put on hold by the next administration and revisited. And if Senator Kerry happens to win the election, I fully expect that to take place this time around.

Burnett says a federal court challenge could also be forthcoming. In the meantime states can pass their own stricter standards for mercury. Connecticut has already done so and just yesterday Ohio along with several other Midwestern states introduced legislation of its own. But unless all 50 states raise the bar on mercury, tougher regulations could hinder new economic development here. And while everyone agrees reducing mercury from power plants is a good idea, mercury is an air-borne toxin and U.S. plants produce just one-percent of the world's total mercury emissions. In Cleveland, Karen Schaefer, 90.3.

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