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Mercury Rising
Published on Saturday, March 26, 2005 by Working for Change
Mercury Rising
Cap-and-trade system short-circuits reforms already in place, while opening door for dangerous hot spots
by Molly Ivins
 

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 people.

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 her daughter.

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 eyesight.

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 Program Administrators.

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

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