First, Rabbi Daniel Swartz leaned toward the microphone at Tuesday's hearing on proposed federal rules to limit mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants.

By allowing emissions to continue, "we have, in effect, subsidized the poisoning of fetuses and children," the Scranton rabbi said.

Later came the Rev. Mitchell Hescox, president of the Evangelical Environmental Network, a national ministry. "We are hindering children from an abundant life . . . because we failed to clean up this terrible poison," he said.

By the time Joy Bergey of Chestnut Hill United Methodist Church spoke, the EPA's hearing officer, Rob Brenner, was curious.

Of all the rules he has worked on, he said, the religious and social-justice communities have shown the most interest in the mercury rule. Why?

"Because of the fact that it's such clear science," Bergey said. "This hurts babies. This hurts children. It is so clearly a question of moral responsibility."

Tuesday's hearing in Philadelphia was one of three nationwide this week. Participants spoke in five-minute segments, beginning at 9 a.m., with the hearing expected to last until 8 p.m. or later.

At least eight speakers represented religious groups. The environmental and medical community dominated the schedule.

"The American public has the right to clean air and clean water," said Delaware County's Robin Mann, Sierra Club national president.

"We must recognize that the effects of harmful air emissions ripple all the way to the most vulnerable members of our society," said Poune Saberi, a family-medicine physician at the University of Pennsylvania.

Coal power is dominant in Pennsylvania, which has more than three dozen plants, and the state ranks high nationally for mercury emissions.

The agency proposed the rule in March. It would limit emissions of mercury. When it falls back to the ground and gets into waterways, it becomes the more toxic methylmercury, which accumulates in fish. People are exposed when they eat fish. The neurotoxin can harm the brains of fetuses and infants.

The rule also would limit emissions of other hazardous pollutants - arsenic, chromium, nickel, acid gases - that can cause serious health effects, including cancer.

The EPA has estimated that, by 2016, the rule would result in up to 17,000 premature deaths avoided. It also would cause tens of thousands fewer heart attacks, cases of chronic bronchitis, asthma events, and more.

EPA administrator Lisa P. Jackson has said the rule would create jobs.

James W. Banford Jr., of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, predicted "job losses at utility plants, coal mines, and in the rail sector."

Scott H. Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, an industry group, said that the rule would be "the most expensive in EPA history" - costing about $11 billion a year - and that benefits were overstated.

Some in the industry support the rule.

Bruce Alexander, environmental regulatory strategy director with Exelon Corp., which has invested in clean generation, called the proposed rule "balanced, reasonable, and long overdue."

"Some claim that the power industry is monolithic and that we all think that EPA has run amok," he said. "That is simply not true."

Likewise, Michael Bradley, executive director of the Clean Energy Group, a coalition of electric-power companies, said the proposed standards would provide the "certainty" the industry needed to move forward with capital-investment decisions.

Chris Salmi, assistant director of air quality for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, said New Jersey has stricter standards, and he urged the federal agency to tighten regulations even more.

Pennsylvania had proposed mercury regulations, but they failed in a court challenge.

John Hanger, former secretary of the Pennsylvania DEP, said: "The benefits of this rule so far exceed the costs that suggesting otherwise is lunacy."

Gretchen Alfonso, the Philadelphia mother of two children under age 2, said: "It makes me angry that, despite my best efforts at living a healthy lifestyle, my body, and my family's, are being invaded by toxins from all angles."

Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147