Wednesday, March 22, 2006

House committee kills mercury report

Resolution had sailed through Senate

Express Staff Writer

A mercury contamination report and recommendation to cap mercury emissions at zero will not go forward as planned after a resolution was killed in an Idaho House of Representatives committee.

The resolution, labeled Senate Concurrent Resolution 131, died Monday in the House Environment, Energy and Technology committee.

House committee members voted 11-2—along party lines—to keep SCR131 in committee and not send it to the House floor.

The resolution, co-sponsored by Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, would have requested the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality prepare a report assessing the nature and extent of mercury contamination in Idaho.

Legislators have been debating power plant regulation since last year when Sempra Generation announced intentions to build a 600-megawatt coal-fired power plant in Jerome County.

Such plants are one of many sources of mercury in the environment.

The Senate sent the resolution to the House last week following a 31-4 vote.

Sen. Charles Coiner, R-Twin Falls, spoke to the House committee in favor of the resolution.

"When we got there, their minds were closed," he said Tuesday. "They weren't in much of a mood to listen. My sense was that it was a predetermined outcome."

The resolution also recommended the Department of Environmental Quality keep Idaho's current mercury emission cap for coal-fired power plants at zero.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has a "cap and trade" program that allows plants to swap pollution credits. If Idaho opts out, and keeps its cap at zero, it cannot allow coal-fired plants into the state.

"If the state does nothing, they would be considered opting in from lack of action," Coiner said. "Once you opt in, you cannot opt out. Because we have mercury problems, because we're finding out there's very little that we know about mercury, and until we get a better understanding of mercury, it would be wise for us to opt out."

Rep. Elaine Smith, D-Pocatello, one of two committee members to vote in favor of the resolution, said the Idaho DEQ has to submit to the EPA by November its intentions to opt in or out of the program.

The agency has asked for an extension, Smith said, but it has not yet been granted.

Gov. Dirk Kempthorne had initially instructed the DEQ to opt into the program.

But his nomination as Interior secretary for the Bush administration could put Lt. Governor Jim Risch in that decision-making seat.

"DEQ will probably take directive from the governor," Smith said.

Coiner said he hopes the issue is not dead.

"I'm hopeful (the Senate Health & Welfare Committee) will send a letter to the DEQ for a mercury report," he said. "At this late date in the session, that's about as far as we can go."

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