This is one of those stories that I'd really like to
start with a loud scream to give people some idea of how terrible it
is. As a newspaper story, it has no soundtrack and comes without
pictures. It appears to involve some technical aspects of an environmental
regulation, and that can be counted on to bore the shoes and socks off
But there is a picture, quite a famous one, that you should search out
so you will know what is at stake. The picture, by the great
photojournalist W. Eugene Smith, is known as "The Madonna of Minamata" and is of
a Japanese woman in a hot bath with an expression of terrible sorrow
and tenderness on her face as she holds the hopelessly deformed body of
Smith's classic book, "Minamata: Words and Photographs," is about the
site of a horrific 1970s case of widespread mercury poisoning. No one
who sees Smith's photos can ever forget them. There was a years-long
struggle between the townspeople of Minamata and the corporation
responsible for the mercury poisoning, which did not want to admit fault. During
that struggle, corporate guards beat Smith so badly he lost his
So, that's what this is about. Not that anyone has blinded a great
photojournalist lately, but mercury in the environment is mercury in the
environment, and mercury hotspots are mind-bogglingly dangerous. Mercury
is a neurotoxin that is particularly dangerous to developing fetuses
and infants. Even in minute quantities, it produces brain damage ranging
from retardation to loss of IQ to attention deficit disorder.
As you may know, one in six American women of child-bearing age
already has enough mercury in her blood to put a developing fetus at risk.
That's why pregnant women are urged not to eat many ocean and freshwater
fish. Mercury also causes heart attacks among adults.
If the Clean Air Act, already in place, were simply implemented as it
is supposed to be by the Environmental Protection Agency, we would be
rid of over 90 percent of mercury emissions in this country by 2008.
But, of course, that would cost the power industry a lot of money, and the
power industry gives lots of money to politicians. So the EPA came up
with a "cap and trade" system, under which power plants can avoid
meaningful regulation until after 2025.
Then, the EPA, whose name is rapidly becoming a morbid joke, had the
gall to put out a press release claiming its new rule will cut mercury
by 70 percent in 2018. Using the EPA's own figures, it fails to do even
that. We'd be lucky to get a 50 percent reduction by 2020, according to
Natural Resources Defense Council.
The worse news is that "cap and trade" allows individual power plants
to trade emissions credits, so while some states will have less mercury
emission, other states will have enormous increases. God help you if
you live near one of these future hotspots. NRDC estimates an 841 percent
increase for California, 176 percent in Colorado, 241 percent in New
Hampshire and 56 percent in New Jersey.
"It is unconscionable EPA is allowing power companies to trade in a
powerful neurotoxin -- it is unprecedented and illegal," said William
Becker, director of the bipartisan State and Territorial Air Pollution
Now here's another charming note. As is becoming monotonously
repetitious with the Bush administration, it turns out the EPA simply ignored
scientific opinion on this subject. The Washington Post reports that the
EPA based its new system of "regulation" on a cost-benefit analysis --
cost to industry versus public health payoff. "What they did not reveal
is that a Harvard University study paid for by the EPA, co-authored by
an EPA scientist and peer-reviewed by two other EPA scientists had
reached the opposite conclusion. That analysis estimated health benefits
100 times as great as the EPA did, but top agency officials ordered the
finding stripped from public documents, said a staff member who helped
develop the rule."
One hundred times as much? Gee, maybe the Harvard study is too
alarmist. OK, try the EPA's definition of cost-benefit analysis. According to
its numbers, 600,000 babies of the approximately 4 million born a year
are potentially exposed to mercury emissions. The EPA estimates the
health benefits at $50 million, which works out to $83.33 per
brain-damaged child. That's some cost-benefit ratio there.
I often think I have exhausted my capacity for outrage with this
administration. Sheesh, why let what it does ruin a beautiful spring day in
Texas? But I know kids with ADD and low IQs and brain damage, and I've
seen the pictures from Minamata. If you can't reach outrage over this
one, you may be eating too much mercury-tainted fish.
© 2005 Creators Syndicate