Millions of tons of mercury emitted from power plants "pose significant hazards to public health and must be reduced," EPA Administrator Carol Browner announced yesterday.
The agency will propose regulations by 2003 and issue final rules by 2004.
"Exposure to mercury poses real risks to public health, especially to children and developing fetuses," said Browner. "The greatest source of mercury emissions is power plants, and they have never been required to control these emissions before now."
Power plants, especially those that burn coal, account for an estimated 40 million tons of mercury getting into the air and water annually, according to a National Academy of Sciences study.
Exposure to mercury has been associated with both neurological and developmental damage in humans.
People are exposed to mercury primarily through eating fish that have been contaminated when mercury from power plants and other sources is deposited to water bodies.
EPA recommends that subsistence fisherman, pregnant women and others should always heed state fishing advisories.
Under the Clean Air Act, EPA is required to study toxic air pollution from power plants in order to determine if additional regulations are necessary in order to protect public health.
The decision yesterday sets no requirements on how much utilities will have to reduce mercury emissions, nor what technology they will have to install to meet the eventual federal standard.
Those requirements will be determined in regulations that are not expected to be formally proposed until late 2003, and then issued a year later.
When fully implemented in 2005, the existing rules will reduce total human-caused mercury emissions by nearly 50 percent from 1990 levels nationwide, according to EPA.
The utility industry had expected EPA action and had hoped that the agency would provide time to address the problem.
Utilities have argued that the technology necessary for major reductions of mercury from coal-burning power plants will take time to develop.
by Virginia Sutcliffe