WASHINGTON — The Bush administration is leaning toward stretching out plans for reducing mercury pollution from power plants until 2018 after concluding that technology for quick cuts isn't available. Some plants would be able to buy their way out of reducing emissions.

The Environmental Protection Agency had offered options three months ago for reducing the 48 annual tons of mercury emitted from 1,100 coal-burning power plants, the largest source of the pollution. One favored reliance on a short-term technology, the other long-term market forces through which companies could buy rights to continue polluting from companies that do more than is required.

But studies co-sponsored by the Department of Energy and the utility industry have found there was no existing technology to remove mercury equally well from various types and grades of coal. EPA officials say that makes the first option to reduce the pollution to 34 tons by 2008 less feasible.

That leaves the second strategy — endorsed by industry — that would establish a nationwide cap of 15 tons on mercury pollution by 2018 by phasing in lower ceilings on each plant's pollution. Plants that reduce their pollution below a yet-to-be-determined ceiling for each one could then sell credits to plants that don't.

High doses of mercury can cause neurological damage.

"The debate is what's the best option, given the available technology. And we think that, given the state of technology, cap-and-trade is better — and we're leaning that way," said EPA spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman.

EPA can turn to that approach only because the Bush administration decided in December that mercury should not be regulated as a toxic substance requiring maximum pollution controls, reversing a Clinton administration determination.

To meet a court-ordered deadline in a lawsuit brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council 12 years ago, the agency must issue a final decision before the end of 2004.

The idea of trading pollution rights rather than making every plant reduce emissions to a specified level coincides with a position endorsed by electric power producers.

"There currently is no commercially available mercury-specific control technology," said Dan Riedinger, a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, representing utilities. "Our hope is that toward the end of this decade, we will have at least identified new technologies for removing mercury from different coal types and using different boiler configurations."

The agency's preference means some plants may have to make only modest reductions, if any, if they choose to buy emissions credits instead of installing pollution controls. That approach differs radically from the Clinton administration's conclusion that mercury could be cut by more than 40 tons annually by 2008 if the best available technology were used.

But that conclusion was based on an assumption that technology for removing acid rain-causing sulfur dioxide and smog-forming nitrogen oxides would, as a side benefit, also cut mercury emissions sharply.

"It is possible to get a 90 percent reduction in mercury emissions in certain coal types and certain boilers, but to then make the jump and assert a 90 percent reduction is possible across the entire industry is simply impossible," Riedinger said. "The actual range of reductions varies, from between about 17 percent to 90 percent."

Carol Browner, the Clinton EPA's administrator, disputed the utility industry's claims of technological shortcomings.

"We had evidence that you could get there. ... It is possible. It is doable," Browner said at a recent news conference held by health advocates and environmentalists on the mercury issue.

She said the agency should set emission limits at the lowest level achievable "rather than asking industry, 'What do you feel like doing?"'

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Browner and environmentalists also complained the cap-and-trade approach would let some facilities continue to emit mercury at high levels, creating mercury "hot spots" for nearby populations.

EPA's own Children's Health Protection Advisory Committee wrote Administrator Mike Leavitt in January to advise him "the cap and trade program, as proposed, may not address existing hot spots and may create new local hot spots for mercury, disproportionately impacting local communities."

The NRDC sued EPA in 1992 claiming it failed to determine which utility emissions are hazardous air pollutants and decide whether or not to regulate them. The suit was settled in 1994, then modified in 1998 to set deadlines for action on specific pollutants.

"Just as we did with lead, we have to take mercury out of commerce," said Linda Greer, an environmental toxicologist at NRDC.

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