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Reversing Course, Swift as Mercury

When state Sen. Wayne Fontana (D-Brookline) was named the Democratic chair of the Game and Fisheries Committee, he made a pledge. He would, a June 20 public statement vowed, "use my leadership position ... to advance the interests of Pennsylvania's sportsmen and sportswomen" ... and to "see to it that their concerns are heard and acted on."


But the very same day, he voted for a bill that state sportsmen and women ardently opposed.

The measure, Senate Bill 1201, is titled the "Clean Air Mercury Compliance Act." But it was passed to prevent utilities from having to comply with mercury-reduction measures drafted by the state's Department of Environmental Protection.


The federal government already requires coal-fired power plants to reduce their output of mercury, a pernicious substance that can damage reproduction rates among fish, and harm brain development in children. But DEP sought stricter controls because Pennsylvania's coal plants rank among the nation's highest in mercury emissions (in part because of the chemical properties of local coal). Its regulations would have required a 90 percent reduction in mercury emissions by 2015; by contrast, existing federal regulations require only a 70 percent reduction by 2018.


The DEP cited the support of such groups as Trout Unlimited, but the measure was staunchly opposed by industry groups including the Electric Power Generation Association. At an April hearing, Association President Doug Biden testified that stricter regulations "would only place Pennsylvania interests at a further competitive disadvantage."


The Senate voted 40-10 to pre-empt the DEP's regulations with more lenient goals ... an outcome environmentalists attribute to political arm-twisting. Biden's group, after all, was joined by such bipartisan backers as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Given his new committee post, Fontana's vote with the majority stands out. "After reading his strong statement for the environment, I am disappointed he couldn't see the importance of the mercury issue," says Melody Zullinger, executive director of the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs


 "It's not like my vote tipped it one way or the other," says Fontana, who explains that the DEP's actions suffered from bad timing. "People are sensitive to energy costs right now. Duquesne Light is seeking a rate increase, and I'm sure [stricter environmental controls] would have played into that.


"I didn't get called by utility companies," he adds, saying "we'll look at it this again" if mercury concentrations get worse. "If [environmentalists] keep me advised, I'd be more than happy to discuss it down the road."


In other words, if you're an environmentalist ... or a fish ... better luck next time.

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