WASHINGTON, D.C. (February 4, 2005) -- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's inspector general yesterday issued a blistering report, finding that President Bush's political appointees at EPA ordered agency experts to develop weak mercury cleanup standards for coal-fired power plants. The administration's action was based upon a political agenda in Congress, according to NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). In the report, Inspector General Nikki Tinsley says the standard should have been based "on an unbiased determination of what the top performing [utility] units were achieving in practice," as required by the Clean Air Act. (The report is available here.)

"The Bush administration wants to fool the public into believing that little can be done to reduce toxic mercury pollution from power plants, but the truth is its political hacks have sabotaged EPA's efforts to adopt pollution standards that would better protect public health," said John Walke, director of NRDC's clean air project. "No amount of smoke and mirrors can hide the fact that the administration's dirty air pollution legislation is, in fact, a blatant attack on the Clean Air Act, and would leave people less protected from mercury poisoning."

The IG investigation determined that Bush political appointees at EPA ordered its experts to set a standard to reduce power plant mercury pollution by 29 percent (from 48 tons to 34 tons of mercury emissions) -- the level set by the administration's "Clear Skies" air pollution legislation. (A Senate committee is scheduled to act on the bill later this month.) The IG report concludes that it is unlikely that "an unbiased calculation" would allow 34 tons of mercury emissions per year nationwide." (IG Report, p.16) EPA staff had been evaluating control standards that would require cuts to as low as 5 tons (or as much as a 90 percent reduction) before Bush political appointees interfered at EPA.

Six U.S. Senators requested that the inspector general investigate EPA's process for developing its proposed rule for mercury pollution from power plants in response to reports that EPA political officials had ordered agency staff not to conduct analysis of more protective cleanup measures, and news stories confirming that language written by utility lobbyists appeared virtually verbatim in EPA's mercury proposal. The IG report, which was based on extensive interviews with EPA staff, confirmed that interference from top political officials prevented agency experts from doing their jobs to evaluate and recommend more protective mercury cleanup approaches.

"The former industry lobbyists President Bush has running the EPA have handcuffed agency experts to prevent them from protecting the public against mercury poisoning by dirty power plants," said Walke.

Walke also noted that Bush's top air official at EPA, Jeffrey Holmstead, did not deny that he or other high-level political appointees ordered agency staff to propose a mercury standard that mirrored the administration's air pollution legislation. Nor did Holmstead deny that EPA officials suppressed data supporting more protective mercury standards. Indeed, the IG report cites an agency expert who says "these results were not acceptable to senior management because they were not close enough to the 34-tons target." (IG Report, p. 14)

Moreover, the IG report found that EPA's "cap-and-trade" proposal for mercury pollution would have to be strengthened to achieve expected pollution cuts. In addition, the report concluded that EPA failed to assess the cap-and-trade plan's effect on children's health and to fully analyze the benefits and costs of stronger mercury control measures. The report also determined that top EPA officials ignored concerns raised by its Children's Health Protection Advisory Committee about the agency's mercury control approach.

"Since the most urgent reason for a strong mercury standard is to protect America's children against a dangerous neurotoxin, it is especially appalling that the Bush administration would risk our children's health with its reckless mercury trading scheme," Walke added.