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The state's plan to regulate mercury pollution from coal-burning power plants drew little support from industry or from health, environmental and tribal organizations Thursday.

Industry officials said the state's proposal went beyond federal rules, could limit development in Montana and would be costly.

Health officials, along with environmental groups and tribal representatives, said the state's plan to use a federal format allowing the trading of pollution credits would lead to more mercury pollution and increased health and environmental risks.

More than 100 people attended the daylong hearing before the Montana Board of Environmental Review at Montana State University-Billings. The board, which held a similar hearing Wednesday in Great Falls, will accept public comment until July 6.

Mercury is released when coal is burned. The toxin causes nerve damage in fetuses and sickness in adults exposed to larger amounts. The most common way people are exposed to mercury is by eating fish from mercury-contaminated waters. Montana has fish advisories for certain species because of mercury contamination.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency adopted regulations in March 2005 to cut mercury from coal-burning power plants. States have until mid-November to submit plans for complying.

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality is recommending a two-part approach. The state would set mercury emission limits that would apply to all sources and would adopt the federal plan known as "cap and trade" to allow trading of pollution credits. Trading allows cleaner plants to sell credits to plants that can't or won't reduce emissions.

The federal regulations assigned states mercury budgets. Montana's budget will be 756 pounds of mercury a year beginning in 2010 and 298 pounds a year in 2018.

Montana sources now emit about 900 to 950 pounds of mercury a year, with PPL Montana's Colstrip plants responsible for 80 to 90 percent of the total.

The DEQ is recommending emission limits on all power plants by 2018. "This is a firm limit," said Charles Homer, supervisor of the DEQ's technical support. The limits will require plants to install control technology, he said.

However, the state's mercury budget of 298 pounds beginning in 2018 would not be firm if the state adopts the federal trading plan. The emission limits on sources would remain, Homer said.

PPL representatives supported the credit trading program and said meeting Montana's proposed emission limits will be costly.

Gordon Criswell, environmental manager at PPL's Colstrip plants, said it could cost $500 million to meet the state's proposed emission limit by installing filters and making other plant modifications to cut mercury pollution by 90 percent.

PPL has tested mercury control methods and is continuing tests at Colstrip. So far, Criswell said, the actual control ranges between 8 percent and 30 percent, while the technology is billed at providing from 50 percent to 80 percent control.

The technology that will work depends on the specific plant and the coal burned, Criswell said.

The federal credit trading program is important because of the variability of mercury in coals, he said. There needs to be "a full trading program to make this process work," he said.

Others disagreed.

Mari Eggers, a science teacher at Little Big Horn College in Big Horn County, said the cap-and-trade plan is based on the assumption that mercury is not deposited locally.

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"We have a mercury problem" in fish already, Eggers said, and some community members rely on fish as part of their diets.

Joe Fox, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council, said cap-and-trade should not be considered because it could allow Colstrip to increase its mercury emissions and affect the reservation, which is located 13 miles downwind. Fox urged the board to make the Colstrip plants "clean up their act" and to protect environmental health on the reservation.

Mike Penfold, chairman of the Yellowstone River Forum, said he has supported a cap-and-trade approach for carbon but that carbon and mercury are different.

"Cap-and-trade is a bad idea for something as hazardous as mercury," he said. Regulators should require the best technology available, he said. "It's almost a moral obligation."

Some rural residents feared the proposed rules would stifle economic development in communities already suffering high unemployment.

"Mercury is a global issue," said Tod Kasten, a farmer representing the Circle Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture. "We need economic growth."

A coal-burning power plant is being proposed for the Circle area.

Dave Kasten, a Brockway rancher, doubted the proposed plant would be built if the rules are adopted. "It's time to mine more of the energy the good Lord blessed us with," he said.

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