EPA's Mercury Proposal: More Toxic Pollution for a Longer Time

Earlier this week NRDC and other environmental groups leaked a draft Environmental Protection Agency proposal that would weaken and delay efforts to clean up mercury emissions from America's coal-fired power plants. Those 1,100 facilities are the largest unregulated industrial sources of mercury contamination in the country. The 50 tons they spew into the air every year amount to roughly 40 percent of total U.S. industrial mercury emissions.

In news stories on the draft proposal, EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt defended it as an emissions trading program similar to the one that has reduced acid rain. A close examination of the draft proposal, however, reveals that by emphasizing a cap-and-trade program, Leavitt was trying to deflect attention from the heart of the proposal: It would downgrade mercury from being regulated as a "hazardous" pollutant to one that requires less stringent pollution controls. By doing so, EPA's "cap" would allow nearly seven times more annual mercury emissions for five times longer than current law. Moreover, an emissions trading program would allow "hot spots" of mercury contamination in the lakes and rivers neighboring the plants that buy pollution credits instead of reducing their mercury emissions.

The proposal, an early Christmas gift to the Bush administration's friends in the energy industry, speaks volumes about the administration's unspoken policy toward America's children. Toxic mercury emissions from power plants put 300,000 newborns each year at risk for neurological impairment. But not only children suffer from mercury exposure. Adults also are threatened. Mercury exposure can damage adult cardiovascular and immune systems, and 8 percent of American women of childbearing age have mercury in their blood above EPA's "safe" level. That's nearly 5 million women.

Subverting the Clean Air Act

In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed a Clean Air Act amendment requiring EPA to study whether regulating hazardous air pollution from power plants was necessary to protect public health. If the agency found that such regulation was necessary, it was supposed to require all power plants to install the most effective equipment available to reduce hazardous emissions. Ten years later, in December 2000, EPA finally concluded that it is necessary to regulate hazardous power plant air pollutants, including mercury. Under the law, the agency is required to set emissions limits for these hazardous power plant air pollutants, and those limits must take into account the maximum amount of reduction that is technologically achievable.

EPA staff reached a preliminary 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. Agency experts also determined that an 80 percent drop -- from 50 tons to 11 tons -- would cost the industry less than 1 percent of its annual revenues. However, Bush administration political appointees at EPA, at White House instruction, subsequently refused to allow the agency's experts to analyze and develop scenarios for these cleanup options, apparently to placate the utility and coal industries, which want much smaller cuts stretched over a much longer period.

The electric industry would agree to a mercury emissions cut of 30 percent to 40 percent, which it could achieve as an incidental byproduct of installing equipment to control emissions of soot and smog-forming gases. If EPA required reductions of no more than 30 percent, then most coal-fired power plants would not have to do anything else to meet the new mercury limit.

EPA's draft proposal does just that. It would rescind the December 2000 EPA finding that mercury emissions from power plants constitute hazardous air pollution requiring the maximum amount of technologically achievable reduction. Instead, EPA has proposed to downgrade mercury emissions -- only from the utility industry -- from a hazardous pollutant to a run-of-the-mill pollutant. EPA has proposed a 30 percent reduction goal under weaker, ineffective provisions of the Clean Air Act, which would be accompanied by a mercury-emissions trading program stretched out over 15 years, rather than the three years required by law.

The 1990 Clean Air Act amendments state that once an industrial category such as the utility industry is listed for regulation under the more rigorous hazardous pollution section of the law, the only way that EPA can "delist" that category is to find that no emissions from any one source in the entire category will "exceed a level which is adequate to protect public health with an ample margin of safety and no adverse environmental effect will result from emissions from any source." EPA is contorting the law to skirt that requirement, because the agency knows it cannot possibly meet that factual, health-based finding for a potent neurotoxin such as mercury. NRDC believes the agency's new mercury proposal would violate the law.

Mercury Poisons Our Children's Brains

Not only does the new EPA proposal violate the law, it more importantly threatens the health of all Americans, especially our children. 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.

Mercury pollution has contaminated 12 million acres of lakes, estuaries and wetland -- 30 percent of the national total -- and 473,000 miles of streams, rivers and coastlines. Last year, 44 states and territories issued warnings about eating mercury-contaminated fish, a 63 percent jump from 1993, when 27 states issued such warnings. Seventeen states have mercury warnings for every inland water body, while 11 states issue warnings for mercury in their coastal waters.

In 2001, the Food and Drug Administration issued new guidelines recommending that pregnant women and women of childbearing age who may become pregnant avoid eating shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish; the agency is currently reevaluating tuna. The need for these official warnings against eating certain fish have been underscored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which, when it measured mercury levels in the blood and hair of women and children, discovered that one in every 12 women of childbearing age has mercury in her blood above the EPA "safe" level.

Jeopardizing Public Health for the Benefit of Campaign Contributors

The proposal is yet another example of backroom quid pro quos with corporate polluters that are the hallmark of the Bush administration. The energy industry gave more than $48 million to the Republican Party in the 2000 election cycle; $3 million of that went to the Bush-Cheney campaign.

American Electric Power, Southern Co. ($1.6 million to GOP in 2000 cycle), Reliant Energy (nearly $445,000 to GOP) Dominion Resources ($560,000 to GOP), along with the government-owned Tennessee Valley Authority, were responsible for one-third of all U.S. electric utility mercury emissions that year, and American Electric Power alone released 10 percent of all power plant mercury emissions. Those four companies also were among the beneficiaries of the recent EPA ruling that essentially repealed the Clean Air Act provision requiring power plants to install modern-day pollution controls if they increased emissions when upgrading their plants.

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 550,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.