Mercury fallacies revisited

Wed Mar. 23, 2005 9:44 AM EST

Gregg Easterbrook, writing in The New Republic Online yesterday, does a fine job of summarizing many of the fallacies underlying support for the EPA's new mercury reduction plan – although he doesn't appear to view them as such.

Yesterday I noted how a high school in Washington D.C., was closed for more than a week simply because a few drops of mercury were found in a hallway. Mercury mania has also gone national, mainly over fears of mercury in the exhaust of coal-fired power plants. Mercury is a poison and a neurotoxin so having it in the air can't be good – although there would be some mercury in the air regardless of industry, since about a third of all airborne mercury occurs naturally.

Okay, maybe the public hysteria over mercury is perhaps a tad over the top, but Mr. Easterbrook wastes no time jumping into fallacy #1. As I explained in a previous Mother Jones blog post, nearly all of the naturally occurring mercury in the air is non-reactive and harmless by itself to human health. This is not even disputed any more.

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Next he disputes a claim made in another New Republic piece that there are hundreds of thousand of birth defects per year due to US power plants:

Umm, sorry, mistake. This figure exceeds the total annual number of babies born with developmental defects in the United States, which according to the National Academy of Sciences is about 120,000, about three percent of whom have defects caused by prenatal exposure to toxic chemicals.

Okay, he appears to have done some homework on this one – but by debunking a small post in The New Republic he's not exactly attacking sound scientific evidence.

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency unveiled regulations that would reduce power-plant mercury… The mandates are a 21 percent reduction by 2010 and a 70 percent cut by 2018. Immediately the rules were assailed as inadequate… [Yet] If environmental groups or members of Congress manage to block the new rule, then instead of a mercury reduction, nothing will happen.

This is a common fallacy. The EPA itself knows that by setting a cap and trade program with such lax targets that by 2010, very few plants will be likely to take any action at all and even reductions by 2018 are not expected to be anywhere near their 70% target. Not filing lawsuits would be the major holdup, things being as they are.

[According to critics] This [plan] might create local "hot spots" of mercury around generating stations that meet the regulation by buying credits from other power plants that reduce their emissions more than required… [This] cannot be ruled out, but seems unlikely. In 1990 Congress enacted a credits-trading system for acid rain. Since then power-plant emissions of the primary pollutant that causes acid rain have fallen by 32 percent, without "hot spot" problems.

Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, which cause acid rain, are nontoxic and take a long time to fall out of the atmosphere. Mercury is toxic and in its reactive form – which comprises about half of all mercury emissions from these plants and leads to the formation of the dangerous methyl mercury found in fish – falls out rather rapidly. That's why the Clean Air Act mandates that mercury be regulated through other means than a cap and trade program and that reductions at every single plant using the best available technology are the minimum acceptable standard.

Easterbrook claims that the worst-case outcome of a credits-trading approach is likely to be that mercury declines more slowly in some areas than others. Unfortunately, this an unreasonably optimistic assumption. The way the mercury program is currently designed, the cost of polluting is less expensive than the cost of cleaning up – especially for those dirty ol' plants who have been shirking upgrades for decades. Plants can also borrow the right to pollute from their own future indefinitely, so as to avoid cleaning up until the program is reformed. That's even considering that "hot spots" will continue at several hundred of the smallest (and oldest) plants – which are currently exempt from the program.

Now let's turn to the parts left out of coverage of the issue--that U.S. mercury emissions are already declining anyway, and that almost all mercury to which Americans are exposed does not come from power plants in the first place… By its deadline year of 2018, U.S. power plants will be emitting just 15 tons of mercury annually, far less than one percent of the current global total.

On this point he's half-right – U.S. power plants currently contribute only about 0.8 percent of the worlds mercury emissions. Indeed an interesting yet utterly preposterous report commissioned by congressman Richard Pombo (R-CA) has aimed to publicize that fact and play down the severity of the U.S. contribution to the global problem. Not that Congressman Pombo and his crew are wrong, but this isn't the whole story. Despite the fact that a good portion of our mercury is due to up-wind pollution from Asia and Eastern Europe, the best EPA estimations still show that 60 percent of our mercury problem is a result of domestic sources – and most of that is from power plants.

Unfortunately, Easterbrook seems to have read Pombo's report:

Speeding up the cutback in mercury emitted by U.S. power plants would have almost no effect on the amount of mercury to which Americans are exposed, since the bulk of the problem comes from nature or from Asia to begin with… No coverage of the mercury issue that I have seen has placed into context how small U.S. power-plant emissions are in the global scheme.

On this last point, Mr. Easterbrook is right – the press is certainly not covering this issue. But there's a very good reason for that – it, along with most of the PR for the new mercury rule is a total distortion of reality.

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