State adopts new pollution rules

In efforts to clean Wisconsin’s water and protect the state’s vital fishing industry, the state will now see the toughest mercury rules yet, requiring utilities to reduce mercury pollution by 90 percent by the year 2015. But the new rules may have residents paying more for electrical needs.

Senior Jenny Herman said she is already anticipating higher energy bills this winter compared to last year. Herman and her roommates live in the same house as they did last year and are already seeing higher utility bills for the summer and fall months – about a $5 per person increase a month, she said.

Herman said she doesn’t know enough about mercury pollution to support toughened standards and does not want to see any kind utility increase.

“(Mercury pollution) doesn’t affect me, but what is affecting me is increased utilities,” she said.

The standards, which will be published in January, were passed Monday after the State Legislature’s Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules did not object to the measure. Under the standards, utility companies have two options to reduce mercury pollution: implement technology to reduce pollution by 90 percent by 2015 or by the same amount by 2021, while reducing other major pollutants as well.

Virtually all the waters in the state are under mercury advisory, said Spencer Black (R. – Madison), who first filed a petition to limit mercury in 2000. The problem however, he added, is not that mercury is state water, but that mercury pollution in the air is contaminating water. Because of this, people are now warned to limit consumption of Wisconsin-caught fish, he said. Black went on to say experiments have showed that mercury-contaminated water quickly cleans up once pollutants have been limited, suggesting Wisconsin could see the effects of reduced mercury pollution in a relatively short time.

Mercury, a by-product of burning coal at power plants, can cause nerve damage and an increased risk of heart disease, according to the Department of Natural Resources.

Supporters of the rules, including Governor Jim Doyle, argue the tougher standards will create a cleaner environment and prevent costly anti-pollution plans in the long run. Opponents claim the consumer will have to carry the weight of the hundreds of millions it will take the utilities to comply to the new standards.

The DNR estimates utilities will have to spend between $38 and $91 million to comply with the new standards, which could trickle down to a $5 to $12 household increase in utility costs annually.

Black said he does not believe the average household will see increased electricity bills this winter because it will take time for power plants. He also disagrees that homes will see dramatic increases, speculating the average household will only see a cent or two increase a day in energy costs.

“It will be down the road . but when (families) do, it (utility costs) will be very modest,” he said.

However, Herman said she feels any increase in utility costs will affect student budgets.

“I can’t afford (an increase) and I don’t know many people who can,” she said.

The state approved the mercury rules, and now it’s a waiting game – waiting for the utilities to comply with the new standards, waiting for reduced emissions and waiting to see if residents need to literally pay for a cleaner Wisconsin.