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Published: Thursday, 2/10/2005

Friends in high places

THE inspector general at the federal Environmental Protection Agency has confirmed news reports out of Washington last year that regulations to control the amount of toxic mercury released into the atmosphere by power plants are being developed to benefit industry rather than the air-breathing public.

It's impossible to act surprised.

A report by the official agency watchdog, Nikki Tinsley, concludes that top political appointees of the Bush Administration instructed the agency's staff to come up with a mercury regulation to hit a target dictated by industry, not public health concerns.

In other words, the administration turned the regulatory process inside out in an attempt to protect the nation's polluters, especially the owners of coal-fired electric power plants, who happen to be major contributors to President Bush and other Republican politicians.

This abuse of the regulatory process ought to be the concern of every American, particularly those who live in the vicinity of any of the nation's 1,100 coal-burning power plants, such as those in Toledo and Monroe, Mich.

Scientists have established that mercury released into the air and introduced into the food chain through contaminated rivers and lakes can cause neurological impairment in developing fetuses. The federal Centers for Disease Control estimates that one of every 12 women of childbearing age in the United States has an unsafe level of mercury in her blood.

The inspector general looked into the EPA's work on mercury at the request of seven U.S. senators after the Los Angeles Times reported that crucial sections of what would be the agency's first mercury emissions rules were written by industry lobbyists.

The results of the EPA's truncated work on mercury have been incorporated into the administration's "Clear Skies" anti-pollution initiative, now before Congress. As we have noted before, this misleadingly named legislation would seriously weaken anti-pollution efforts embodied in the federal Clean Air Act, which has been in force for some 30 years.

The EPA watchdog concluded that "EPA senior management instructed EPA staff to develop a standard for mercury that would result in national emissions of 34 tons annually, instead of basing the standard on what the top performing [industrial] units were achieving in practice."

In so doing, the Bush appointees forced the agency's career technical staff to forgo scientific studies and cost analyses that otherwise would have been conducted, simply to reach a pre-ordained conclusion that would fit into the "Clear Skies" package.

The EPA's reaction to the report was to attack the expertise of the inspector general and claim that the health impact of mercury emissions was exaggerated. Such smoke screens - pun intended - have become predictable from an administration that has gone out of its way to brush aside health concerns about pollution while ensuring that industry spends as little as possible to control it.

Work by Sen. George Voinovich and other lawmakers to push "Clear Skies" through Congress reportedly has stalled, which is good news for anyone who breathes the air. The administration should simply enforce current law.

We'd all be better off.



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