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Published: Thursday, 4/20/2006

Right track on mercury

THE initiative shown by Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm in seeking to mandate strict new state regulations on mercury pollution is admirable, although the action undoubtedly will face strong resistance from the usual suspects - electric utilities and the Bush Administration.

The new rules, to be written by the state Department of Environmental Quality, would require a 90 percent reduction in mercury emitted by coal-burning power plants by 2015.

This is a reasonable and achievable requirement, far better than the federal goal, set by political officials now in charge at the U.S. Environmental Agency, of a 70 percent reduction by 2018.

At one time, the feds set tougher anti-pollution rules and the states complied grudgingly. Now it's the other way around. In Washington today, utility lobbyists not only are at the legislative table when environmental rules are drafted but they also do the writing.

The administration's latest tactic is to pre-empt state regulations that are tougher than federal rules, so the Granholm proposal still has a long way to go.

Michigan is among more than a dozen states that contend that federal mercury regulations, adopted last year, are too weak. In fact, a persuasive case can be made that serious remedial action is way past due.

Mercury, a metallic toxin that is among the most harmful pollutants known to mankind, is introduced into the environment daily when coal is burned to produce steam that spins turbines to generate electricity. It is spewed into the air and water from power plant smokestacks and typically enters the food chain through fish. Scientists have determined that it can cause neurological damage, especially in fetuses and in developing children.

Both Michigan and Ohio have warnings against eating large quantities of fish caught near such facilities as Detroit Edison's Monroe power plant, long recognized as one of the area's worst mercury polluters.

None of this is new. The danger to humans has been known at least since the 19th century, but the utility industry continues to balk, claiming that effective controls are too costly.

This lethal debate has gone on far too long. Michigan is on the right track in setting a more stringent standard than Washington's.

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