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Administration Must Address Mercury Risks

Before President Bush took office, the American people were finally going to see progress toward cleaning up dirty power plants. Thanks to the Clean Air Act — one of the most far-sighted and bipartisan environmental laws of the 20th century — the toxic mess belched from these smoke stacks was getting a control regimen. The Clinton administration was working toward a strong and swift pollution clampdown for mercury, one of the most harmful toxics around. Downwind states were especially thankful that we were going to get a reprieve from decades of dumping-ground status.

But then the Bush administration rolled into town and systematically began rolling back that progress. Now the only ones celebrating are behind the closed doors of the boardrooms of the corporate polluters that the Bush Environmental Protection Agency has let off the hook.

Subverting the Clean Air Act

The Bush appointees have trained a laser-like focus on dismantling the effectiveness of the Clean Air Act. Through creative, industry-inspired legal interpretations, they have contrived to replace the science-based rules being developed by the Clinton EPA with limp replacements that fall far short of what is possible, what is sensible and what is necessary to protect people and the environment from the harmful effects of mercury.

Power plants account for 40 percent of the mercury pumped into the air and yet are the last unregulated source. The Bush administration faced a court-approved settlement agreement to move ahead with a mercury control program. Instead of following the spirit and intent of the Clean Air Act that would have led to a 90 percent reduction in mercury emissions in 2008, they set a target of 70 percent reductions and punted the target date a decade down the field, to 2018. And it’s likely that even those scaled-back goals are inflated. Internal EPA projections show the Bush proposal achieving only a 54 percent reduction in 2018.

A Poisonous Rule

Pregnant women and children face the greatest risks from mercury. Mercury is not just another pollutant; it’s a potent neurotoxin that causes developmental problems for fetuses, infants and children. Exposure can damage attention spans, fine-motor skills, language and memory. Recently a new EPA study found that the agency’s own estimated number of newborns at risk of elevated mercury exposure had doubled to 630,000. They also found that one in six pregnant women has mercury levels in her blood above EPA’s safe threshold. EPA’s own panel of experts on children’s health immediately protested the Bush plan to roll back mercury controls, criticizing it for setting the bar too low.

Mercury in Fish

Mercury contamination is so widespread and pervasive that more than 40 states and territories have issued fish consumption advisories. Shortly after the new Bush mercury rule was announced, EPA and the Food and Drug Administration revised their dietary advisory to warn consumers, especially pregnant women and children, to stop eating swordfish, shark and mackerel and to reduce their consumption of tuna.

Science and Industry Say More Can Be Done

The administration claims its proposed rule is the most that can be done to reduce mercury emissions with commercially available technology. Not only are they selling American ingenuity short, but they also are ignoring the scientific evidence.

An EPA white paper indicates that technology exists to get a 90 percent reduction in mercury emissions much sooner than the Bush plan requires. And Sen. Jim Jeffords’ (I-Vt.) recent survey of environmental technology firms clearly shows that far deeper reductions in mercury emissions are economically feasible and technically available for plants using even the dirtiest coal. Even industry sources say more can be done. Last year, the American Coal Council published an article about the effectiveness of existing technology in reducing mercury emissions, and an industry witness at a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing testified that these technologies show “promising results.”

Rules Ghost-Written by Industry

When it comes to the Bush administration’s writing of the mercury rule, we are seeing special interest ghost writing that seriously undermines EPA’s independence. They have made it a seamless process, from industry wish list, to agency rule.

And now we even have the fingerprints.

By my count, the Bush mercury proposal lifts verbatim or highly similar language from industry memos at least 20 times. Key industry arguments were adopted that influenced how the administration calculated mercury emissions from polluting plants, as well as the legal justifications for not regulating mercury as a hazardous air pollutant. The effort expended to subvert the public’s interest to the special interests is breathtaking to behold.

Despite warnings from EPA legal experts that the Bush plan “posed legal risks,” Bush appointees stormed ahead. White House officials and EPA political appointees scrubbed language in the mercury proposal to soften the description of health risks from mercury exposure. Bush appointees even directed EPA’s career staff to ignore the normal regulatory development procedures and to drop key analysis that was required by executive order. Last week, Sens. Jeffords, Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and I are formally requesting a thorough investigation by EPA’s inspector general of all of these actions.

Bipartisan Calls for Stronger Mercury Controls

Recently, Sens. Jeffords, Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Mark Dayton (D-Minn.) and I were joined by nearly half the Senate in asking the administration to withdraw its mercury proposal. That same day, 10 state attorneys general from across the country also asked for the Bush plan to be recalled. These objections do not fall along party or regional lines, and the concerns are building so swiftly that they may soon reach critical mass.

The Bush administration has a large and growing credibility problem when it comes to protecting public health and the environment, and the mercury rule is Exhibit A. The administration should immediately withdraw its proposal and commit to moving ahead with a mercury plan that meets the intent and the letter of the Clean Air Act. Anything less will needlessly risk the public’s health, and anything less will needlessly violate the public’s trust in what should be an EPA guided by sound science, instead of by crass pandering to special interests.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is ranking member of the Judiciary Committee and the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry subcommittee on research, nutrition and general legislation.

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