Suing the EPA

A lawsuit filed today against the Bush Administration asserts that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is failing to protect the public health, and violating the Clean Air Act, by ignoring tons of unaccounted for mercury emissions each year.

The suit, filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Sierra Club, asks the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to review a recently published EPA rule on mercury because it fails to address "lost" mercury disappearing from a handful of chlorine plants around the country. In some years, as much as 130 tons of mercury has disappeared from the nine plants that still use mercury in an outdated process for making chlorine.

"These nine chlorine plants are losing more mercury every year than the entire power plant industry as a whole emits," said Jim Pew, the Earthjustice attorney who is handling the suit. "It's clear the Bush administration is not serious about reducing the public's exposure to this toxin."

Exposure to mercury can cause severe neurological and developmental problems in children. The fetuses of pregnant women who eat mercury-tainted fish and shellfish are at especially high risk for such problems.

The EPA rule, published in December, acknowledges that the agency cannot account for mercury that may be evaporating during chlorine production. However, rather than setting standards to prevent the problem or trying to trap the escaping mercury, the rule sets optional "housekeeping" guidelines and concludes that "the fate of all the mercury consumed at mercury cell chlor-alkali plants remains somewhat of an enigma."

The nine chlorine plants still using mercury are in Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, Ohio, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wisconsin. The chlorine production process subjects large vats, containing thousands of pounds of mercury, to electrical charges -- a process that has been phased out at the majority of the nation's chlorine plants. The mercury can then be re-used, but every year the plants must purchase additional mercury to replace varying amounts that disappear during chlorine production.

In 2000, these plants purchased 65 tons of replacement mercury; in 2002, they bought 130 tons. The nation's coal-fired power plants, in contrast, emit roughly 48 tons of mercury each year.

"Where is this lost mercury going? The industry says it gets lost in the pipes somewhere," said Earthjustice attorney Pew. "But they've been losing quantities like this for the past several decades. Those pipes would have to look pretty strange by now. We don't buy this stuck-in-the-pipes stuff for a minute. It's completely implausible." Pew told BushGreenwatch.org that EPA could solve the problem immediately by banning the use of mercury in chlorine production, or by forcing plants to route escaping mercury into stacks where it could be measured.

In a separate legal action, NRDC has also petitioned EPA to reconsider the rule and set standards guaranteeing reductions in the plants' toxic mercury emissions.

Submit a comment to the EPA about both of their mercury proposals.

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