The Clinton administration recently announced it would require coal-fired power plants to cut their toxic emissions of mercury to protect the unborn children of women who eat large amounts of fish while pregnant.
Carol Browner, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, said the EPA would propose the regulations by 2003 with final rules in place by 2004.
"Mercury from power plants settles over waterways, polluting rives and lakes, and contaminating fish," Browner said in a statement. "The greatest source of mercury emissions is power plants, and they have never been required to control these emissions before now." Toxic mercury emissions have been blamed for damaging the nervous system of unborn babies when their mothers eat large amounts of fish.
The fish are contaminated through polluted waterways near coal-fired power plants.
Environmental groups had urged the EPA to add mercury to a long list of power plant emissions already regulated to keep the air and water clean.
A National Academy of Sciences report earlier this year said US coal-fired utilities emitted about 40 tons of mercury annually. The report found that while the overall risk of mercury poisoning was relatively low in the United States, vulnerable groups - like pregnant women - could suffer great harm from contamination.
Industry experts have said there are few options to control mercury emissions and that regulations could cost power plants billions of dollars.
Browner, a Democrat who is expected to leave the EPA next month when Republican President-elect George W. Bush takes power, said proposed regulations would be published by December 2003 and finalized one year later.
The final rules should reduce US mercury emissions by nearly 50 percent from 1990 levels, she said.
The Clinton administration has urged Congress to develop a broad plan to reduce air pollution from US power plants by cutting mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide.
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