UPDATED INFORMATION FROM EPA POSTED at 5:30 p.m.:
By Bina Venkataraman, Globe Correspondent
A group of conservation and public health groups filed a lawsuit today against the Environmental Protection Agency asking for a strict deadline for the agency to require coal-fired power plants to reduce their emissions of mercury and other toxic pollutants.
The Conservation Law Foundation, a New England-based advocacy group; Environment America, based in Boston; and the Natural Resources Council of Maine were among the 12 organizations that filed the complaint in federal court in Washington, D.C.
Coal-fired power plants are the largest source of mercury pollution that remains unregulated by the agency, and one of the largest sources of industrial mercury pollution, said Martha Keating, an associate in research at Duke University who was an environmental scientist at the agency for 10 years but is not affiliated with the lawsuit.
“What we’re left with is a situation where more and more coal-fired power plants are being proposed,” she said. “The agency does need to move forward quickly with this.”
Mercury pollution in the air settles or rains into rivers, lakes and streams. It accumulates in fish tissue, magnifying its toxicity, and can cause brain damage when pregnant women or children eat contaminated fish. Some research suggests it can also harm fish and other wildlife populations.
“We are seeing virtually the entire country with a contamination problem in fish,” said Keating, noting that nearly all states have advisories warning the public not to eat fish from certain rivers, streams, lakes, and oceans at various times of year due to mercury and other toxic metal contamination from coal-fired power plants.
The Clean Air Act required that the Environmental Protection Agency regulate mercury and other toxic air pollutants from new and existing coal-fired power plants by the end of 2002. The Bush administration responded in 2005 with the Clean Air Mercury Rule, which allowed utilities to trade mercury emissions. Under the rule, some large power plants could keep emitting pollutants while buying pollution credits from cleaner plants. A federal court struck down the rule in February as unlawful because it did not impose mandatory, strict controls on mercury pollution for large power plants as the Clean Air Act requires. UPDATE: The Environmental Protection Agency has filed a petition for judicial review of the decision to the Supreme Court and expects to hear a response by January 21.
The coalition that filed the suit today would like to see the incoming Obama administration fulfill the Clean Air Act by controlling mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants “within two years of taking office,” said Ann Weeks, legal director for the Clean Air Task Force and counsel for the Conservation Law Foundation.
She said the group had already met with Obama’s transition team and was hopeful the next administration would regulate the pollutants. She added: “We filed the lawsuit because it’s the tool we have at hand for making sure that there’s action.”
Cathy Milbourn of the Environmental Protection Agency said the agency "will review the suit and respond accordingly."
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