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Like Quicksilver, EPA Slips by Protections
Published on Saturday, December 13, 2003 by the Boulder Daily Camera
Like Quicksilver, EPA Slips by Protections
by Christopher Brauchli
 

Industrialized communities neglect the very objects for which it is worth while to acquire riches....
— Richard Tawney, The Acquisitive Society [1920]

The Environmental Protection Agency has been as busy as Santa's elves during the fall season making, however, regulations that bring dismay instead of joy. The newest proposed regulation comes as is usual in this administration, as a gift to industry and not to the environment. It's nothing more than a coincidence that the biggest gift goes to Texas, but the rest of the country will feel the effect of this gift as well. The newest proposed regulation is only the most recent in a string that have been issued.

In October we learned that the Bush administration was reversing a long-established policy on industrial emissions from power plants, oil companies and other industries. Under the Clean Air Act of 1970, industrial plants that upgraded their operations were required to install modern pollution controls. In October, the EPA announced new rules that permit facilities to call upgrades "routine maintenance" and avoid installing modern pollution controls, so long as the cost of the upgrade does not exceed 20 percent of the cost of replacing the entire production unit. An example of the benefits the new rule bestows on industry, if not on people, can be found in Monroe, Mich., where the new rule will permit the local power plant to emit 102,700 tons of sulfur dioxide annually until 2016. Under existing interpretations of the act, the emissions would only have been 10,000 tons annually. (As of this writing, New Jersey and a dozen other states are suing the EPA over the new rules, asking a federal court to block their implementation.)

In December the EPA announced another startling proposal that is nothing more than an early Christmas present to industry. It announced that the mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants should not be regulated the same as other toxic air pollutants. Mercury has been identified by the EPA as the "toxic of greatest concern among all the air toxics emitted from power plants." It contributes to neurological disorders and is a particular threat to pregnant women. One has to applaud the EPA's straightforward description of the effects of mercury. Its proposal to ease the rules on its emission into the atmosphere is another matter.

According to a report in The New York Times, the EPA's newest proposal would make the upcoming "legally mandated mercury regulation fall under a less stringent section of the Clean Air Act that governs pollutants that cause smog and acid rain, which are not toxic to humans." The EPA estimates that 48 tons of mercury are released into the air each year by power plants. Under the proposed rules, power plants could buy and sell pollution rights to each other, thus enabling companies to continue emitting pollution by buying credits from companies that have already taken steps to reduce their emissions. In addition, utilities could be in compliance with mercury reduction targets for the next six years by installing pollution controls to capture smog and acid rain even though, unlike mercury, they are not considered toxic to humans.

Under the Clinton plan, every plant in the country was required by 2008 to have mercury controls installed that would reduce mercury emissions to 15 tons annually. Under the recent proposal, annual mercury emissions would be reduced to 34 tons by 2010 and 15 tons by 2018.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 12 women of child-bearing age has unsafe mercury levels. George Rodgers Jr., a University of Louisville Medical School professor and medical director of the Kentucky Regional Poison Control Center, describes mercury as "an insidious toxin" that stays in the environment a long time once introduced. He said that women pass it to their children during fetal development and after birth through breast feeding.

The delay in controlling mercury emissions is not simply the mindless act of an environmentally insensitive agency whose actions belie its name. There is a reason that implementation of the new regulations is being delayed. As Michael O. Leavitt, the new administrator of the agency explains, a market-based system reduces mercury emissions without placing a financial burden on utility companies. "By exploring the alternative, we gain substantially more progress than under command and control." John Millett, a spokesman for the EPA echoes Mr. Leavitt. He says emission trading is the preferred approach because it is the most cost-effective way.

Of course, it is not cost effective for those who suffer as a result of the savings. Texas companies will benefit the most from the new rules. According to Tom Smith, director of Public Citizen's Texas office, "We're already the worst state in the nation for mercury pollution...." Texas releases more mercury into the air than any other state as a result of emissions from 19 plants. According to three public interest groups in Texas, Texas power plants emitted 8,992 pounds of mercury into the air in 2001. They will be grateful that those emissions can continue for a few more years. Those affected by mercury poisoning as a result of this policy will be less grateful.

One chemical company many years ago had as its slogan, "Better Living Through Chemistry." The better living to which it referred was for individuals. Mr. Bush also believes in better living through chemistry — for industry.

Christopher Brauchli is a Boulder lawyer and and writes a weekly column for the Knight Ridder news service. He can be reached at brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu

Copyright 2003, The Daily Camera

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