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The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency last Thursday held a public hearing on FirstEnergy Corporation’s request for a mercury variance at its Bayshore power plant’s wastewater treatment plant.

About 40 people showed up at the Lake Erie Center to g et information, ask questions, and give comment on the request.

The Ohio EPA received an application from FirstEnergy for a modification of its permit to incorporate the variance. If approved, the variance would grant a higher mercury limit to the facility, according to Mike McCullough, of Ohio EPA’s division of surface water.

“We have to do a review of that application and look at the socio-economic factors involved in granting a higher limit,” he said. “Because Lake Erie is the receiving waters for discharges from the facility, we’re required to have a public hearing.”

FirstEnergy Corp., the parent company of the Bayshore power plant, has a wastewater discharge permit from the Ohio EPA that limits concentrations of pollutants such as mercury from the power plant.

Mercury is a neurotoxin that causes impaired neurological development in fetuses, infants and in all Ohio waters.

A federal rule change will limit the amount of mercury wastewater treatment systems can discharge to 1.3 nanograms per liter, or 1.3 parts per trillion in Ohio surface waters on Nov. 1, 2010. Bayshore’s average discharge of mercury is 6.5 nanograms per liter.

The company would be required to identify sources of mercury at the facility and take steps to minimize the mercury releases from those sources. When the facility’s wastewater discharge permit was renewed last year, the company was required to monitor the mercury concentration in wastewater as it enters the bottom ash pond to determine the effectiveness of the treatment process in removing mercury.

Mercury that is emitted or discharged by power plants is almost entirely due to burning coal. Some types of coal have more mercury than others, he said.

Current facility treatment processes are capable of removing some mercury from the wastewater. However, to remove a higher percentage, the company would have to install extremely expensive technology that would substantially impact costs,

“About 10 years ago, there were several studies done that looked at the cost of mercury removal technologies,” said McCullough. “And these studies came up with a cost of about $10 million per pound for mercury removal below 12 nanograms per liter. And the thinking was that it was cost prohibitive by the U.S. EPA and Ohio EPA.”

A mercury variance was developed and written into the rules, said McCullough.

“There have been some efforts to look at newer technologies over the past 10 years and there has been some work done on that. Some power plants, in fact, are looking at pilot projects to use different types of mercury removal technologies. But those are in the very early stages and there’s not much of a track record from any facility on that yet,” said McCullough.

If the variance is not granted, and the facility is required to install mercury removal technology, utility rates would go up, said McCullough.

The application includes a Pollution Minimization Program, which all applications have to have, he said.

“It’s a plan on what steps are going to be taken to reduce the mercury concentration in the discharge,” he said. FirstEnergy’s PMP includes the replacement of switches and equipment that contain mercury, and using good housekeeping practices to minimize spills.”

The Ohio EPA has asked FirstEnergy to look at optimizing its operation of an ash pond so it can achieve higher removal rates, said McCullough.

If the Ohio EPA grants the variance, the facility gets a higher mercury limit. “We don’t know exactly what that limit would be because we haven’t calculated it yet,” said McCullough. “It would be something higher than the water quality standard.”

The facility’s discharge has to meet an annual average of 12 nanograms per liter by the end of the permit cycle or five years, whichever comes first, he said.

“Based on the data they submitted so far, I don’t think that will be a problem,” he said.

The next time the permit is renewed, the company has to go through the process again and reapply for a mercury variance and submit a new Pollution Minimization Plan for evaluation by the Ohio EPA, he said.

Sister Madelena Pohlman, who lives on York Street near the plant, said she was opposed to a variance.

“We need to not grant this variance, not only to FirstEnergy, but to other plants that are asking for a variance, because we need to force people to innovate to create cleaner ways to create our power. So the rules are needed by the EPA. They’re our protection agency. They’re not on the side of industry. They’re on the side of protecting our environment. I encourage them to believe that and hold to that,” she said.

Tony Szilagye, who spoke on behalf of the Western Lake Erie Sierra Club and Western Lake Erie Waterkeeper Association, said the 1.3 nanograms per liter mercury limit that will take effect in November, 2010, should be lower.

“The Great Lakes Water Quality Standard set a mercury limit of 1.3 nanograms per liter for all the Great Lakes. Four of the five Great Lakes depths are over 800 feet deep, while the Lake Erie’s average depth is but 62 feet. Take into consideration the fact that the average depth of western Lake Erie is 24 feet, and the average depth of the water where the Bayshore power plant is located in Maumee Bay is but five feet, and the depth at the outfall of the Bayshore power plant is three feet. Because of the 650 million gallons per day of shallow, warm fish filled water used by the Bayshore power plant, the mercury limit should not be 1.3 nanograms per liter. It should be less. The Maumee River is the most biologically productive river in the Great Lakes. The Maumee River and Bay are often called the Great Lakes nursery. The Maumee River is known as the greatest spawning grounds for walleye. Mercury works up the fish predator ladder. Lake Erie has a mercury fish consumption advisory. If ever there was a case for a mercury standard to be lower or at a minimum standard, it is at the Bayshore power plant. Mercury is a problem for fish and the people that eat them,” he said.

Nachy Kanfer, who represents the Sierra Club National Coal Campaign in Ohio, said FirstEnergy is “uninterested” in being socially and environmentally responsible.”

“This particular plant has been found non-compliant for various environmental standards for 12 consecutive quarters. It has been issued a formal enforcement action by the U.S. EPA twice in the last five years, as well as informal enforcement action six times in the past five years. The same holds true for several other plants of FirstEnergy’s in Ohio, including the Lakeshore plant in Cleveland, which has also requested a mercury variance for its wastewater discharge,” said Kanfer. “I would also point out that FirstEnergy has promised to invest the least of all Ohio utilities in energy efficiency in response to this year’s energy efficiency law past by the Ohio General Assembly earlier this year. By comparison, AEP will invest $178 million over the next three years in efficiency. FirstEnergy has promised $15 million. As of a few weeks ago, FirstEnergy hadn’t even appointed a staff person in charge of that process. So that’s something to consider – that FirstEnergy doesn’t seem to be interested in actually being a corporate citizen that is responsible socially or environmentally.”

The agency will accept public comments on the variance request until Dec. 11, 2008.

“We will consider those comments, and then make a recommendation to the director regarding granting the variance or not,” said McCullough.

Any decision can be appealed to the Ohio Environmental Review Appeals Commission.

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