EPA Science Advisory Committee Urges Administrator Leavitt to Strengthen Controls on Power Plant Mercury Pollution

Children's Health Committee Says Administration Plan Inadequate

WASHINGTON (January 30, 2004) - In a sharply critical letter issued this week, a federal advisory committee questioned whether Bush administration's proposal to reduce mercury emissions from power plants would adequately protect children, infants and women of childbearing age. The 27-member Children's Health Protection Advisory Committee, which includes representatives from state and federal agencies, environmental groups, universities and industry, delivered the letter to EPA Administrator Michael Leavitt, urging him to reconsider the proposal. (For a list of the members of the committee, click here.)

"From our understanding, the unique vulnerabilities of children, infants, and women of childbearing age were not considered in the development of EPA's proposed rules," the committee wrote. "…We recommend that EPA promulgate a mercury rule that results in the most child-protective and cost-effective reductions of mercury from coal-fired power plants that are possible, since they represent the largest remaining source of mercury emissions in the United States." (For a copy of the 7-page letter, click here.)

EPA's mercury proposal would rescind a December 2000 EPA finding that mercury emissions from power plants constitute hazardous air pollution requiring the maximum amount of technologically achievable reduction. EPA now proposes to regulate mercury from utility companies as if it were a non-hazardous pollutant, demanding only a 30 percent emission reduction and allowing some sources to avoid controls entirely by buying pollution "credits." The proposal also would give polluters at least 15 years to make the reductions rather than the three years required by law. Previously, EPA staff had reached a determination that requiring maximum achievable mercury emissions reduction would result in a 90 percent cut within three years -- from 50 tons to 5 tons annually. (For more information on the new, weaker EPA proposal, click here.)

"The fact that this advisory committee, which includes representatives from Bayer, British Petroleum, Monsanto, and Procter & Gamble, unanimously signed off on this letter should make Administrator Leavitt sit up and take notice," said Linda Greer, an environmental toxicologist and director of the Public Health and Environment Program at NRDC (the Natural Resources Defense Council). "EPA should go back to its original plan, which would have cut mercury pollution from power plants by 90 percent within three years. It also should pick up the pace on regulating other sources of mercury pollution, such as the chemical and iron and steel industries."

Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that, like lead, especially threatens the brains and nervous systems of fetuses and young children. A number of neurological diseases and problems are linked to mercury exposure, including learning and attention disabilities -- which are a growing problem--and mental retardation. Mercury also might be linked to the recent increase in autism, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease.

Mercury bioaccumulates in the food chain, and human beings are mainly exposed to mercury by eating fish and other kinds of seafood. Although all fish contain some amount of mercury, predator fish at the top of the food chain, such as shark, swordfish and tuna, have the highest levels.

The committee specifically recommended that EPA:

  • Evaluate the proposal's health risks to children and women of childbearing age and how those risks might be different under other regulatory options;

  • Evaluate the possibility that hot spots could result from the proposed trading program; and

  • Analyze the technologies, costs, health impact and economic benefits before choosing a regulatory option.