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Mercury rising, controls next

Barack Obama promised change and hope. He’s bringing it when it comes to the mercury control industry.

If you haven’t heard, the new president has directed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to drop an appeal of a Bush administration mercury control plan for coal-fired power plants.

Coal, the backbone of America’s electrical grid, runs about 1,100 plants in the U.S., but also spews out about 48 tons of mercury per year. The element is a potent toxic substance that affects brain development. It settles in our rivers and lakes and most people are exposed to it by eating fish.

Back to Obama. The Bush administration was pushing an industry-favored mercury control plan for plants. It would have allowed utilities to reduce emissions through credits. In other words, if you cut more mercury than you needed at one plant, you could use that as credit at another plant.

The end result would be a net decrease in mercury, supporters said, but the plan also would have created “hot spots” of mercury pollution, detractors noted.

The new push is for stricter mercury limits through the best available control technology (clean-er tech, if you will). Currently,  there aren’t many commercially available methods for cutting out high levels of mercury. But that doesn’t mean they’re not under development and just waiting to be launched to the masses.

According to the EPA, mercury emissions can be reduced by controlling for sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter. Specific control technologies for mercury removal have been used at some plants with success, and involve activated carbon injection.

“The mercury attaches to the carbon particles and is removed in a traditional particle control device. Several other control technologies to reduce mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants are being developed and tested but have not yet been deployed at the commercial scale.”

The Institute of Clean Air Companies says the sector is raring to go.

“Air pollution control vendors have reported booking new contracts for equipment for more than a dozen power plants, with engineering companies reporting new contracts on several facilities to develop design specifications for procurement of mercury control technology.”

A list of published papers on the various control technologies are linked from the site.