DHEC lowering mercury limits, but not far enough, some say

November 19, 2008 

DHEC in September cracked down on suggested mercury limits at Santee Cooper’s proposed coal-fired plant. But not everyone thinks they’re seeing a tougher DHEC.

As part of the preliminary permit issued last year for the plant, DHEC agreed to allow the release of 138 pounds of mercury annually. Santee Cooper had been seeking to release up to 230 pounds.

The Virginia-based Southern Environmental Law Center, a legal advocacy group, told DHEC last year 138 pounds was excessive. A federal court soon would crack down on mercury, Law Center attorneys said.

The lawyers were right.

In February, a federal appeals court ruled a contested mercury law invalid, reinstating previous tougher standards.

“All along, we’ve been telling DHEC the lenient mercury rule would be thrown out,” said Law Center attorney Blan Holman.

DHEC regulators said it can’t set limits based on what it thinks a court might do. “We have to use the current regulatory authority,” said DHEC air quality bureau chief Myra Reece.

Following the court’s decision, in early July, Santee Cooper announced the plant planned to emit only 114 pounds per year.

In September, DHEC lowered that further, to 93 pounds.

Santee Cooper has not responded to DHEC’s latest ruling.

Santee Cooper said lowering mercury emissions below 114 pounds would cost $5.2 million for new pollution-control equipment and an extra $10.8 million a year. It also said it doesn’t know exactly how much less mercury would be emitted for that price.

Dr. Tim Dancy, a Florence physician, says it’s worth more money to limit mercury if it protects people’s health. Medical costs are skyrocketing, he said.

“We’re talking about long-term health costs for thousands of people,” he said.

Some critics charge DHEC rushed to approve the preliminary permit. It should have waited for the release of a pending federal environmental impact statement.

But DHEC said preliminary approval doesn’t mean the plant will be approved — it just allows the review process to go forward.

— John Monk

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