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Federal court rejects mercury emissions policy

WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court Friday threw out the Environmental Protection Agency’s approach to limiting mercury emitted from power-plant smokestacks, saying the agency ignored laws and twisted logic when it imposed new standards that were favorable to plant owners.

The ruling, issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, was another judicial rejection of the Bush administration’s pollution policies. It comes less than a year after the U.S. Supreme Court rebuked the administration and the EPA for refusing to regulate greenhouse gases.

This court’s critique – which undid a controversial program to “trade” emissions of mercury, a potent neurotoxin – was especially sharp. It compared the EPA to the capricious Queen of Hearts in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” saying the agency had followed its own desires and ignored the “plain text” of the law.

“What the administration did when they came in was to essentially try to torpedo environmental regulations,” said James Pew, a lawyer with the activist group Earthjustice who worked on the case. “This really is a repudiation of the Bush administration’s environmental legacy.”

An EPA spokesman said the agency would study the ruling before deciding whether to appeal.

Coal-fired power plants are responsible for about a third of the country’s total mercury emissions. Mercury is an environmental problem because it drops out of the air and accumulates in rivers and streams, winding up stored in the tissue of fish. If the fish are eaten by expectant mothers or children, the metal can cause serious developmental problems in a child’s brain.

The case decided Friday turned on a highly contentious EPA decision from 2005. The agency proposed a “cap-and-trade” program, in which plants were required to reduce their mercury output to a certain level – or buy credits from plants with emissions below those levels. That rule was to go into effect in 2010.

After the EPA’s decision, a coalition of activist groups and state officials sued. Their argument was that the EPA violated the terms of a clear mandate from Congress – that all plants be outfitted with the best available technology to cut emissions.

Friday, the appeals court agreed.


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