By TRACI WATSON

Sept. 21, 2000 (USA TODAY)—The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to announce as early as next week that it’s going to regulate power-plant emissions of mercury, a toxic pollutant that causes neurological damage in about 60,000 of the babies born each year in the USA, environmental and industry sources say.

The EPA’s move, which would settle a fight that has lasted at least a decade, could drive up electric bills. It also could help lower mercury levels in the most common source of the toxin for Americans — the flesh of fish such as tuna, swordfish, shark, some Great Lakes walleye and striped bass from San Francisco Bay.

When power plants release mercury into the air, it gets into streams, lakes and the ocean, and then one form can accumulate in fish. In a July report, the National Academy of Sciences estimated that 60,000 babies a year may be born with neurological damage because of mercury exposure in utero. The damage is severe enough to affect school performance.

Aside from pregnant women, the vast majority of Americans don’t eat enough mercury-laden fish to suffer health effects.

A coalition of air-quality agencies from Northeastern states estimates that the cost of cutting mercury emissions would raise the average household electric bill about $30 a year. But representatives of the power industry say costs could be much higher. They say that as the industry is deregulated, power companies may be reluctant to pass such costs to consumers.

An EPA spokesman would say only that the decision is under discussion within the administration. A proposal is being reviewed at the White House.

Mercury occurs naturally in coal. One-third of all man-made emissions of mercury in the USA comes from coal-burning power plants, according to the EPA.

Incinerators and other man-made sources of mercury must follow federal rules limiting airborne emissions, but power plants have been exempt from those rules.

The agency plans to set a limit by December 2004 on how much mercury power plants emit, the sources say. Power companies then would have three years to meet the new limits.

Forty-one states and territories have warnings telling people not to eat fish from at least one river, lake or bay inside their boundaries because of mercury contamination.

A spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, which represents electric utilities, says the industry hopes the EPA will be reasonable in imposing new limits.

To see more of USAToday.com, or to subscribe, go to https://usatoday.com

© Copyright 2000 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.