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NC power plants lower emissions of toxic mercury

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The nation's electric utilities reduced emissions of mercury nearly 5 percent between 2007 and 2008, as the recession slowed economic activity and decreased demand for electricity and other forms of energy.

The decreases in North Carolina were much more dramatic, according to a new report from the Environmental Integrity Project. Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that settles in rivers and waterways, contaminates fish and can cause birth defects in people.

No power companies in this state rank among the nation's top 50 mercury emitters, the report says. And the state's mercury emissions in 2008, the last year for which data is available, were the lowest since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began tracking the data in 2000.

Nearly all coal-burning power plants operated by Progress Energy and Duke Energy showed reductions, ranging from a 4.17 percent drop at Progress's Mayo plant in Person County to an 85.83 percent drop at Progress's Asheville plant in Buncombe County.

Mercury emissions at Progress's Sutton plant in New Hanover County increased by 3.7 percent. However, Progress plans to shut down that coal-burning plant in 2014 as the company shifts to natural gas, a clean-burning fossil fuel that emits virtually no mercury.

One major exception was a plant operated by Epcor Power in Person County, which increased emissions by 81.62 percent. But this increase reflected a relatively small amount of mercury, rising from 4.19 pounds to 7.61 pounds, whereas some Progress and Duke plants spew several hundred pounds of mercury each year.

Power plants account for about 40 percent of the nation's mercury emissions. The EPA and environmental groups say the power companies could cut mercury emissions by as much as 90 percent, but the industry balks at the potential costs involved.

The nonprofit group's report, issued last week, showed that the nation's top 50 mercury emitters reduced emissions by just 0.26 percent.

The conclusions were based on EPA data. The report, entitled "Dirty Kilotwatts: America's Top Fifty Power Plant Mercury Polluters," is available here.

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About the blogger

John Murawski has been a full-time newspaper reporter since 1991, with stints at Legal Times and The Chronicle of Philanthropy (both in Washington, DC), The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Palm Beach Post (in South Florida) before arriving at the N&O in December 2004. At the N&O he covers energy (nuclear, coal, renewable, efficiency), hydraulic fracturing (or "fracking"), public utilities and health care. His beat includes PSNC Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas, Duke Energy Progress, PowerSecure International, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, Novo Nordisk, Pfizer, Biogen Idec and others. He has also contributed more than 30 book reviews on topics spanning botany, history, science and religion. You can reach him at 919-829-8932 or e-mail him.