Bush's Mercury Rules: Another Retreat on Public Health
Published on Saturday, December 27, 2003 by the Minneapolis Star Tribune
Bush's Mercury Rules: Another Retreat on Public Health

The competition is tough, but of all the Bush administration's retreats on controlling air pollution, its proposed new rules on mercury may prove to be the most cynical. History will have to judge.

Mercury is one of those unambiguous poisons. It's a known nerve toxin and a cause of birth defects. Minnesota and 40 other states now have to warn anglers and their families against eating too much fish because of mercury concentrated in their fillets. Especially at risk of harm are women of child-bearing age, among whom one in 12 is estimated to have dangerous levels of mercury in her body.

Also unambiguous is the single largest source of this contamination. About 40 percent of human-introduced mercury in the environment comes from coal-burning electric power plants. Medical waste incinerators used to be a big problem, but the Environmental Protection Agency cracked down on them.

By law and court order, the EPA has been required to crack down on coal plants, too. The Clinton White House issued a rule requiring them to install "maximum achievable control technology," or MACT, under a regulatory scheme the Clean Air Act reserves for such menacing poisons as asbestos, chromium and lead.

But the Bush White House has reversed that stance, deciding to pretend that mercury is in a more benign category, with the chemicals that cause acid rain and smog. It wants to let utilities choose their own reduction strategies, buying and selling emission credits as their balance sheets dictate.

This shift is the first big policy announcement by Bush's new head of EPA, Michael Leavitt. He was able to keep a straight face as he described this approach as more effective at reducing mercury emissions. The numbers put the lie to that:

MACT rules as applied by the Clinton EPA would reduce power-plant mercury emissions from 48 tons per year now to about 5 tons by 2007, with every facility required to use the best available controls.

The emissions-trading approach prepared by the Bush EPA would reduce emissions to 34 tons per year by 2018 -- more lenient, even, than the 26-ton standard envisioned in the stalled "Clear Skies" legislation -- and permit "hot spots" of mercury generation to continue if polluters found it cheaper to buy credits than cleanup equipment.

The administration points to the success of emissions trading in reducing sulfur dioxide pollution, and thus acid rain, during the 1990s. This is true but beside the point. Though noxious and destructive, sulfur dioxide does not pose the same threat to human health that mercury does. That's why the Clean Air Act makes the distinction in regulatory regimes that EPA is now intent on blurring.

It's worth noting that the Clinton White House considered, and rejected, a similar approach to mercury emissions, having concluded that the law permitted no such thing. Even the Bush EPA, in 2001, began talking with utilities about a MACT-style reduction of 90 percent in their mercury output. Then the lobbyists got busy and the rules were changed.

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