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Published: Monday, 3/28/2005

Half-measure on mercury

Mercury is one of the most dangerous substances spewed into the air by coal-burning power plants, but the political appointees who control the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency aren't in any particular hurry to curb it, despite the so-called mercury rule just adopted.

President Bush's pro-industry regulators - if they can be called that - aren't doing anything special to spare the public from this deadly neurotoxin. Instead, their tactic is to require industry to step up measures against the pollutants that cause smog and acid rain on the theory that those processes also will take some mercury out of the human food chain.

Even measured against the administration's demonstrated antipathy for environmental regulation, the mercury rule is an cynical half-measure that, in the words of Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont, endorses "the continued poisoning of children and pregnant women."

The evidence is well documented: Mercury ingested by pregnant women, chiefly through the eating of fish caught in lakes and rivers near coal-burning power plants, damages the brains of developing fetuses.

The new rule, which works in tandem with regulations on nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide promulgated recently, sets a national limit of 38 tons of mercury emissions per year from power plants by 2010 and 15 tons by 2018, all supposedly without requiring installation of any additional equipment. Overall, that would be a 70 percent reduction from the current 48 tons, and EPA officials claim it is the most cost-effective, quickest way to curb mercury.

But experts in the anti-pollution business point out that greater reductions - in the range of 80 to 90 percent - already are possible, and could be in place sooner and at relatively low cost. In fact, the federal Energy Department has spent some $60 million to develop these technologies over the past six years.

Moreover, the EPA, according to a Washington Post report, suppressed a study co-authored by one of its own scientists that concluded that the health benefit of curbing mercury is actually 100 times greater than the agency's political managers contend. Unfortunately, those who hold sway in the White House and at the highest levels of the EPA had a different mission in mind - to give the industrial polluters a cheaper deal, not reduced emissions that public health concerns demand.

The EPA chieftains also trumpet the claim that their rule is the first regulation of mercury by the agency, but that's misleading. Back during the Clinton Administration, the EPA was on the verge of regulating mercury in response to lawsuits by environmentalists, but that action was halted by the Bush White House.

In the meantime, the administration has missed few chances to discredit legitimate science on pollution control and to delay effective protection of the air we breathe and the water we drink.

This legacy of obstructionism will threaten the public health and safety long after the current crop of political operatives is gone from the EPA.



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