Aug. 14, 2004 – Although new data shows that mercury pollution has increased in recent years, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Bush administration have rejected stricter rules for regulating companies that introduce the highly toxic substance into the environment.
In response to a court order, the EPA will release the nationâ€™s first-ever rule purportedly intended to reduce mercury pollution from coal-burning power plants by March 15. The order was a result of a case brought by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental activist organization that sued the EPA in federal court in 1992 seeking to regulate hazardous air pollutants from power plants.
But critics say the new corrective regulation was designed by big industry, accepted by the EPA only after it was deemed unthreatening to pollutersâ€™ profit margins, and is unlikely to significantly curb mercury pollution in the United States.
"Toxic mercury emissions from power plant smokestacks put countless infants and children at risk for brain damage," Linda Greer a health expert at NRDC told Reuters.
Mercury released by coal-burning power plants accumulates in waterways and in fish. Studies show that it can cause neurological and developmental problems, including cerebral palsy, mental retardation, deafness and blindness, in fetuses and young children, according to a report released by Physicians for Social Responsibility, a public policy organization that supports stricter pollution rules.
More than half the fish in US lakes and reservoirs have mercury levels that exceed government standards for children and women of childbearing age, according to an analysis of EPA data by Clear the Air, an activist organization seeking stricter environmental standards for coal-burning power plants.
EPA administrator Mike Leavitt has been reviewing mercury pollution since his appointment in November. In a recent interview with the Associated Press, he gave some guidelines for the new rule. Those formative guidelines included maintaining stable energy prices, creating equal opportunities for utilities and coal-producing regions, and protecting children and pregnant women. "It is a matter of real importance, and I intend to do it right," Leavitt told the AP.
However, Leavitt indicated that he would oppose the stricter regulations recommended by many scientists, health experts and environmental groups. "Iâ€™m interested in having a market-neutral regulation that lets the market make those determinations," he said, adding that the new plan would require power plants to use technology or chemical processes to meet new pollution targets, perhaps by switching to cleaner burning coal or natural gas.
Critics charge that companies will only reduce pollution when legally required to do so, and point to the increasing level of mercury pollution as evidence that the market cannot regulate itself.
The plan proposes to expand "cap and trade" credits constraining mercury-emitting plants, allowing cleaner plants to trade unused pollution credits to dirtier ones. Under an unrestricted "cap and trade" system, some companies could even increase mercury pollution.
Angela Ledford, director of an environmental advocacy coalition that includes the National Environmental Trust, US Public Interest Research Group and Clean Air Task Force, told the AP that the Environmental Protection Agency should concentrate on enforcing current rules under the Clean Air Act.
"Nothing has changed," she said. "Instead of strengthening the rule so it reduces more mercury faster, Mike Leavitt is moving forward with a rule that was largely written by industry and is the subject of an EPA inspector general investigation."
The Clean Air Act requires that power plants enact the highest amount of possible mercury reductions by 2008, but the Bush administrationâ€™s alternative, the so-called "Clear Skies" plan, proposes to delay that goal until 2018. Many environmentalists want power plants to cut emissions by 90 percent within four years, arguing that the extra ten-year delay will result in several hundred tons of superfluous mercury emissions.
However, a spokesman for the utility industry told Reuters that delaying the program makes sense. "Ninety percent reductions are not possible with today's technology, and [the NRDC are] out to lunch if they think that is a reality," said Frank Maisano, a spokesman for the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, an industry group seeking to limit new environmental rules.
Bushâ€™s Clear Skies plan is currently under attack from seven senators who have asked the EPA inspector general to investigate potential procedural violations and illegal industry influence. The senators charge that officials reviewing the plan altered its language to downplay scientific evidence about the dangers of mercury, used the exact same or similar language requested by industry representatives, and did not perform a required analysis of all possible regulatory options.
In addition, the senators allege the EPA took disciplinary action against members of the Agencyâ€™s own Health Advisory Committee for criticizing the plan, the Cape Gazette reports.