California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer and attorneys general from eight other states sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday, contending that air quality rules for power plants adopted earlier this month do not protect the public from mercury pollution.
The legal challenge is the latest attack on the EPA's efforts to regulate mercury emissions from power plants, which have come under widespread criticism from environmental groups, health advocates and state air pollution officials.
The EPA's independent inspector general concluded in a report that the mercury restrictions did not follow accepted standards under the Clean Air Act and were influenced by top political appointees at the agency. But agency officials have strongly defended the rules, noting that they are the first such limits on power plant emissions in the world.
The lawsuit alleges that the EPA broke the law by enacting a rule that exempts power plant emissions of mercury from a Clean Air Act requirement that the "maximum available control technology" be used to reduce toxic air pollution.
The suit was filed in Washington, D.C., by the attorneys general of California, New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Maine, Connecticut, New Mexico and Vermont. Only Maureen D. Smith of New Hampshire is a Republican.
The attorneys general said they also plan to challenge a second rule that allows trading of pollution credits. They assert that such action would allow many power plants to buy their way out of reducing mercury emissions, leaving neighboring communities exposed to "hot spots" of contamination.
"We don't have coal-fired power plants in California, but the emissions wind up in our state -- in our water and in the fish we eat," Lockyer said in an interview. "These power plants are the largest source of mercury emissions in the United States."
EPA officials did not directly respond to the lawsuit. In a statement, the EPA said that mercury pollution is a global problem that will require an international solution.
"We could eliminate all mercury emissions from U.S. coal-fired power plants but it still wouldn't solve the problem, because most of the fish we eat [close to 80%] are from overseas, from countries and waters beyond our reach and control," the statement said.
Mercury is poisonous, even in small amounts, and can cause health damage to the nervous system of humans, particularly children.
The EPA has estimated that 600,000 children born in the United States every year are exposed to unsafe levels of mercury in the womb. It now advises pregnant women to limit consumption of tuna, swordfish and other seafood.
While coal-fired power plants are the nation's largest industrial emitters of mercury, most of the mercury contained in the fish Americans eat either occurs naturally or is the result of pollution from other countries.