A Better, Cheaper Way to Regulate Mercury

Byron Swift, Environmental Law Institute
Date Released
January 1999

The best way to regulate the release of mercury to our environment is through pollution prevention — placing a declining cap on the use of mercury in products and processes. Such a cap could limit mercury releases to 10% of current levels from intentional uses, and 50% of process emissions by 2010. This approach would be far more effective than EPA`s current strategy based on emissions controls, because it achieves dramatically greater reductions in total mercury releases, and reduces the problems of re-releases of mercury from wastes. The proposed level of abatement appears feasible, as major reductions in mercury use have been made in many sectors, and substitutes are available. The cap approach also promises to be much lower in cost than an emissions control strategy because the cost of preventing mercury from entering wastestreams is far less than treating the emissions afterwards. To illustrate, while mercury can be purchased for $3 a pound for use in various products, current regulations would require waste incinerators to spend $200-5400 a pound to remove the mercury from their emissions afterwards. In addition to users, a cap or other controls should be placed on the process emission of mercury from coal-fired plants and other sources, now about 25% of total releases. These steps would implement a pollution prevention approach, and could attain the virtual elimination of mercury releases at a relatively low cost.