By Dr. James Rust
January 4, 2012, JunkScience.com
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman posted a column in the December 31 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution “Why we should celebrate the gift of new EPA rules.” The column extolled virtues of the gift to the nation by the Environmental Protection Agency(EPA) in the form of Maximum Achievable Control Technology(MACT) rules reducing emissions of mercury from power plants December 21. Usually gifts are at no cost; but this one is different and it is prudent to examine its costs and benefits.
EPA acknowledges these rules will cost $10 billion annually. Tom Fanning, President of Southern Company, testified before Congress last Spring these rules would cost his company $3 billion in new expenses and may require rate hikes of 25 percent. The Shreveport Times reported its utility would have to raise rates as much as 25 percent by 2015. Scott Segal, Director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, said the ruling would mean a loss of 1.44 million jobs by 2020 and raise rates by 23 percent the next decade. Other estimates are annual costs over $100 billion. No matter what position is taken on this issue, the costs to consumers is going to be big.
Mercury is spread all over the planet — in the ground, water, and vegetation. The July 2010 issue of Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics stated total global mercury emissions is 8280 tons with 70 percent coming from natural causes. Annual emissions from U.S. power plants is less than 50 tons. Even the EPA acknowledges three quarters of mercury emissions from power plants pass outside our national boundaries.
In 2007, annual human-caused mercury emissions from Asia was 64 percent of the world’s total and growing; while emissions from North America was 9 percent and declining. Any decrease in mercury emissions due to MACT rules will be swamped out by increased emissions coming from Asia due to their annual additions of over 100 coal-fired power plants.
A June 2002 report issued by the U. S. Geological Survey gave data for annual mercury depositions in ice cores in Wyoming over the period 1700 to 1998. Measurements showed mercury depositions ranged from 6 parts per trillion in 1945 to a maximum of 23 in 1985 down to 15 parts in 1998.
Government maximum exposure levels to mercury by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for a 40-hour work week is 78,000 parts per trillion. Due to children having a higher risk from exposure to mercury, the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry recommends a maximum exposure on a continuous basis of 156 parts per trillion.
Measured mercury concentrations are negligible compared to allowable levels so reductions in mercury emissions by EPA’s MACT rules will have no influence on safety.
EPA’s enthusiasm for removing mercury from coal-fired power plants is matched by its enthusiasm for homes to replace incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent light(CFL) bulbs in order to reduce electricity use. Each CFL contains 5 milligrams of mercury. Once the 4 billion light sockets in American homes are filled with CFLs, the 22 tons of mercury in homes poses a hazard that overwhelms any hazard from power plant mercury emissions. A single CFL breaking in a 2000 square-foot home could produce a mercury concentration of 10,000 parts per trillion.
My personal opinion is CFLs present no increased hazard due to mercury. Society has survived when mercury wasn’t considered a hazard and every home had mercury thermometers; Mercurochrome, Merthiolate, and Ccalamine as medicines; mercury thermostats; mouths filled with amalgam fillings; etc.
Upon closer examination, EPA’s gifts and columnist Paul Krugman’s endorsements should be rejected.
The author thanks JunkScience Steve Milloy and Paul Driessen for continually providing information about mercury’s hazards.
Dr. James H. Rust is a retired Professor of Nuclear Engineering from Georgia Tech and has 50 year experience in areas related to energy policy.