More than a decade ago, researchers studying the pristine ponds in Acadia National Park found something unexpected: mercury in the fish. That discovery prompted my state of Maine to start an aggressive campaign to prevent and control contamination from mercury. We have shut down major polluters, cleaned up our power plants and waste incinerators, and taken steps to ban or control the discarding of batteries, thermometers, florescent bulbs and other
products that contain this metal. We have banded together with other New England states and the Eastern Canadian provinces to reduce mercury emissions in the region. But like the rest of the country, Maine has reached an impasse, for most of the mercury that fouls our skies, waters and land comes from outside our borders. If there were ever a case for national intervention, this is it.
When a substance containing mercury (such as coal or a battery) is burned at a power plant or incinerator, the metal is released into the atmosphere and then falls to the earth in rain or as dry deposits. In lakes and wetlands, bacteria can convert the mercury into a poisonous form, methylmercury. As this toxin works its way up the food chain, it becomes more concentrated, and hence more deadly. By the time mercury accumulates in fish, it poses a serious health risk to fish-eating species, including humans. Young children and fetuses are especially vulnerable. One-sixth of American children born each year have more mercury in their blood than the Environmental Protection Agency considers safe for proper neurological development.
So what is the federal government doing about this health threat? Not much. In fact, it’s moving backwards.
Fifteen years ago, Congress ordered the EPA to limit toxic air pollutants, including mercury. In 2000, the EPA determined that mercury emissions from electric power plants — the country’s single largest uncontrolled source of the pollutant — should be regulated as a hazardous air pollutant under that law. Implementing regulations would have to seek the best reduction that today’s technologies could achieve. A few weeks ago, however, the EPA retracted its 2000 decision. Instead, the agency has proposed regulations that allow the power industry to continue polluting unabated until 2018. Even then, the rule sets goals that are much lower than the Clean Air Act requires.
How the regulations were crafted helps explain their disturbing content. According to the EPA’s inspector general, the EPA’s political appointees instructed staff to set mercury targets based on pre-determined levels — the same levels that were expected to be met under a separate proposal for other pollutants, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide. In other words, the mercury regulation would require nothing new. The IG also revealed that significant language in the mercury rule was lifted, word for word, from memos written by the industry.
Since 2003, when the EPA issued a draft rule, I have written to the agency, individually or with others in Congress, more than a dozen times, urging compliance with the law. Repeatedly, we were rebuffed with excuses, misleading testimony and deceptions. I was especially disturbed when then-Administrator Michael Leavitt reneged on his pledge that the EPA would conduct its own scientific analyses, as mandated by law. Instead, the EPA uncritically accepted the industry’s findings.
In addition, the EPA’s cost-benefit analysis — used to justify the rule’s tepid standards —is utterly unsound. When the final rule was unveiled, the agency claimed that more stringent controls would cost the energy industry much more than the public health benefits. Not true. According to a Government Accountability Office report, the EPA simply never did this analysis. In fact, to reach its skewed economic conclusions, the EPA ignored the analysis prepared by Harvard University, which estimated health benefits 100 times as great as did the EPA. Although the Harvard study was paid for by the EPA, and co-authored and peer-reviewed by EPA scientists, the inconvenient Harvard findings were deleted from public documents.
The mercury rule writers also ignored mercury’s special qualities. Since it is heavier than most other airborne pollutants, mercury is more likely to settle near its source. Accordingly, the rule’s “cap and trade” provision is ineffective. Allowing plants to continue to pollute if improvements are made at facilities in other parts of the country fails to deal with the biological “hot spots” of mercury contamination that occur downwind of power plants.
The people and interests most harmed by this rule are not taking this abdication of federal responsibility lying down. Several states, include Maine, have filed suit against the agency. Challenges have been instituted by fishermen and environmental groups also deeply concerned about the impact of mercury pollution.
I am urging Congress to take action. While the Clean Air Act of 1990 set the stage for aggressive enforcement of stringent air quality standards, the hostile attitude of this administration means we must do more. In addition, I am an original co-sponsor of the Clean Smokestacks Act of 2005, introduced by Reps. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). That bill would set standards for emissions of mercury (as well as carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides) which are based on science and best practices, not politics.
I also plan to introduce legislation that will develop a system to measure and document changes resulting from reductions in mercury emissions. Although the scientific community agrees that mercury is a terrible health hazard, we have gaps in our knowledge of where methylmercury is found and how it is affecting humans and other life forms. It is time to develop better base-line data so that we can see where we are and where we are going.
Mercury pollution from power plants is a national problem that requires a national response. Our health is more important than the profits polluters can reap from weakened regulations. The administration and energy companies must recognize that they can and should invest in technologies that will clean up power plants and bring a better future for all of us.
Rep. Tom Allen (D-Maine) sits on the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on energy and air quality.