LAKE GEORGE - Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an attempt to reinstate a mercury-control policy forwarded by the administration of George W. Bush that some say would have had devastating impacts on the fragile ecosystems of the Adirondacks and Catskills.
The court ruling was hailed by the Adirondack Mountain Club, based in Lake George, as an advance in curbing mercury pollution in Adirondack waterways.
In February 2008, the group won a major victory when a federal court threw out the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Air Mercury Rule, a cap-and-trade program during Bush's reign that allowed corporations - primarily coal-fired utility plants in the Midwest - to buy pollution credits and emit mercury without pollution controls.
The policy resulted in regional mercury "hot spots," environmentalists say. The appeals court ruled then that the EPA mercury plan conflicted with the federal Clean Air Act, which requires each power plant to install the best technology available to reduce mercury emissions by as much as 90 percent.
The Bush administration and the utility industry subsequently appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Although the Obama administration withdrew the federal government's appeal, the industry continued to pursue the case.
Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the industry's appeal, upholding the lower court's decision.
Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club hailed the ruling, noting that 96 percent of the lakes in the Adirondack region exceed the recommended EPA action level for methyl mercury in fish, and that health officials have advised children and women of childbearing age not to eat fish from six Catskill reservoirs, which provide New York City with its drinking water.
"We're relieved that the Supreme Court has put the final nail in the coffin of this ill-advised regulation, which left the Adirondacks and Catskills vulnerable to continued mercury contamination," Woodworth said. "With this ruling, we can now move forward with sensible mercury controls that will help reverse these trends."
Monday's court decision represents a successful conclusion of a long legal battle, Woodworth said, by the Adirondack Mountain Club and a national coalition of health and environmental organizations and several state governments. This coalition had argued the Bush policy was an illegal attempt to weaken the strict mercury emission controls set forth in the Clean Air Act.
The decision means that EPA must now promulgate regulations requiring each power plant to install the most advanced pollution controls to reduce its mercury emissions. In enacting the Clean Air Act, Congress provided for strict limits on mercury emissions through the installation of maximum achievable control technology, which Congress made applicable to all coal-burning power plants. But the Bush-era EPA policy would have delayed for two decades the elimination of airborne mercury emissions as a source of mercury toxins in the Northeast.
The Adirondacks and Catskills are downwind of numerous coal-burning power plants, whose mercury emissions contribute significantly to mercury pollution in these regions, according to multiple studies.