Heavy Metal

The EPA's new mercury regulations will achieve too little, too slowly.

Thu Dec. 18, 2003 4:00 AM EST

The Environmental Protection Agency this week proposed two alternatives to Clinton-era plans to cut mercury emissions from coal-burning power-plants. The proposals are far less strict than the ones foreseen by the previous administration; they give companies the choice either to reduce emissions or use a 'cap-and-trade' plan to buy pollution credits from companies that have exceeded their reduction ratio. Monday's announcements are merely the latest element in a pattern of anti-environmental policies from the Bush administration.

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The Clinton administration listed mercury as a "hazardous air pollutant," which would have required each plant to install the best available mercury controls by 2008. Mercury is considered dangerous to humans because the consumption of contaminated fish can lead to brain damage in infants and fetuses. In order to implement its trade-scheme, the Bush administration is now reclassifying mercury into a less stringently controlled category of the Clean Air Act.

Previously, the EPA set itself the goal of reducing the current 48 tons of annual mercury emissions by 90 percent by 2007. The two new proposed alternatives envision less reduction in more time. The first proposal, relying on already-existing emission-control standards would reduce emissions by 14 tons (29 percent) by the end of 2007. The market-based 'cap-and-trade' scheme would, when fully implemented in 2018, reduce mercury emissions by 33 tons (69 percent). Announcing the plans on Monday, Michael O. Leavitt, the relatively new EPA head said: "These actions represent the largest air reductions of any kind not specifically mandated by Congress. We are calling for the largest single industry investment in any clean air program in U.S. history." Indeed, the proposed rule change, which will take effect in about a year, seems to be the administration's attempt to circumvent Congress after failing to win its endorsement of Bush's Clear Skies initiative.

Southwest Florida's Herald Tribune thinks that the new scheme will effectively help polluters at the public's expense:

"Mike Leavitt, the Bush administration's new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, sounds as if he recently attended a motivational seminar. 'More. Better. Faster. Newer. That's the tune you'll hear from the administration over and over again,' he declared a few weeks ago.

… 'The cap and trade approach shows us again and again that people do more, and they do it faster, when they have an incentive to do what's in the public interest.'

… Protecting public health really ought to be enough incentive. What's needed is a forceful crackdown on mercury emissions -- not a gradual reduction that will give utilities up to 15 years to install better technology and allow plants to keep fouling the air and water as long as they have enough money to pay for the privilege.

… The EPA's mercury scheme may be 'newer,' and it may offer 'more' to polluters. But, given rising concerns about mercury- contaminated seafood, it's difficult to share Leavitt's enthusiastic belief that a cap and trade program will be 'better' or that reductions will be achieved 'faster.'"

Utilities praised the administration for promoting the 'cap-and-trade' policy, which they said offered more 'flexibility', but opposition in and out of Congress is growing. "It is clear that the government is aware of the risks of mercury, understands that aggressive regulations work, but remains unwilling to undertake these needed public health protections," said Dr. Robert Musil, the chief executive officer of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a public health advocacy group. "Instead, the administration's action today will allow the primary source of mercury pollution to keep on threatening America's children and families." Sen. James Jeffords, formerly Republican, now an independent from Vermont, the ranking minority member in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said: "Put simply, this rule means that power plants can pollute more, for longer than the law allows."

The Chicago Tribune reckons that the EPA's proposal does too little, too slowly:

"That's a change from the EPA's position three years ago under the Clinton administration, when, after a decade of study, it promised to propose tough new standards. Instead, the EPA now proposes to slowly ratchet down mercury pollution, allowing tons more into the air in the next decade than otherwise would have been released. That's not an auspicious start for Leavitt.

… To be fair, it's important to remember that right now there's no federal regulation on mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants. So new federal limits that begin to tackle the problem are welcome. It's also true that a portion of the mercury that falls into America's waterways comes from overseas. That's a good argument to start now to tightly control mercury, a necessary step to convince other countries to follow suit.

… Industry officials note that such modifications will cost billions. Granted. The costs probably would be passed along to consumers through higher rates. Cleaning the air and water isn't free, but it's worth the cost."

Once mercury enters water, it turns into a more dangerous form, methyl mercury. The Food and Drug Administration recently issued a warning primarily aimed at pregnant women, on the dangers of mercury levels in certain kind of fish. But many consumer advocate groups say the warnings are too vague.

Since federal initiatives are seeming to falter, the Detroit Free Press advocates that states take matters into their own hands:

"The federal government is pondering once more how to advise Americans on high mercury levels in some fish, including tuna. But no matter where the Food and Drug Administration ends up, it's time for Michigan to take its own precautionary steps.

… The obvious answer is information, particularly signs at grocery stores and fishing sites, along with discreet footnotes on restaurant menus. Otherwise some people, in ignorance, will eat too much fish while others shun every kind. Since fish can be a heart-healthy source of protein, that's a big mistake, too. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as expected, announced a weak set of rules Monday in its first attempt to regulate mercury emissions from coal-fired plants. That makes good consumer education even more crucial. It's a job the state can and should take on."

Syndicated columnist Molly Ivins sums up:

"I can't tell whether this administration is flaunting its cynicism, its contempt for science or its conviction that when in power you help your contributors and fry your enemies. Although how millions of small children and unborn fetuses came to be enemies of Bush & Co. is beyond my political or theological understanding.

We are talking about the rollback announced last week in regulating mercury pollution. Except, of course, it wasn't announced as a rollback, it was announced as a great step forward. This raises the always timely question, 'How dumb do they think we are?' and this time the answer is 'profoundly dumb,' because it is real hard to get fooled by this one. You look at the numbers and tell me.

… This means hundreds of more tons of mercury discharged over the next 15 years, and that many more children born brain-damaged.

… The good news is this will save the utility industry hundreds of millions of dollars -- worth every retarded child, eh? Besides, the coal industry contributed more than $250,000 to Bush's last campaign, and you didn't."

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