New rules for mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants were approved Monday by a legislative panel after Nevada's environmental agency chief warned that the alternative would be direct federal oversight.
"I don't think we don't want to go there," said Assemblywoman Barbara Buckley, chairwoman of the Legislative Commission, after state Division of Environmental Protection chief Leo Drozdoff said federal control would be the result of state inaction.
Drozdoff, responding to questions from Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, R-Reno, said the state could lose its authority to oversee the power plant emissions unless the rules are in place. The state gets that oversight authority from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
If the federal EPA was in charge, Drozdoff added that any power plant operators in Nevada would have to get their permits from that agency, adding, "Generally speaking, industry prefers to work with us because we're quicker and more attentive."
Angle complained that the rules, which were approved Sept. 6 by the state Environmental Commission and were subject to final approval by the Legislative Commission, seemed too onerous.
Under federal EPA standards set last year, Nevada will be limited to 570 pounds of mercury emissions per year from 2010 to 2017. After that, the figure will drop to 224 pounds per year.
The new rules require power plants with coal-fired electric utility steam generating units to get state permits. Emission amounts from existing plants will be based on projected actual emissions. Remaining allowances will go into a pool for new plants or incentive programs.
The state says a major objective of its program is to encourage mercury reductions at existing plants and encourage new plants to make use of low-emission technology.
Buckley, D-Las Vegas, noted the state is required to submit its plan for controlling mercury emissions from power plants by Nov. 17.
Dan Randolph of Great Basin Mine Watch said he was glad to see the power plant standards because they'll "rachet down" that source of mercury.
But Randolph said there's still a major problem with rules governing Nevada mines, which are by far the biggest source of mercury emissions in the state.
State regulators last March approved regulations governing airborne mercury emissions at precious metal mines. But critics said those rules would effectively rubber-stamp the status quo and provide little actual protection of public health and the environment.
An estimated 100 tons of mercury has been discharged into the environment from Nevada mines over the last 25 years, according to a 2005 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report. It typically is released into the atmosphere during roasting and other refining processes.
State and industry officials say major mines deserve credit for dramatic reductions in mercury emissions after forming the voluntary program with the support of NDEP and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
According to the EPA's toxic release inventory, Queenstake Resources Ltd., Newmont Mining Corp., Barrick Goldstrike Mines Inc. and Placer Dome Inc. reduced emissions a combined 75 percent between 1998 and 2003 - from 13,153 pounds of mercury to 4,488 pounds.
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