In Katrina’s catastrophic shadow, it’s easy to ignore other
threats to public health and the environment that involve government malfeasance.
But one such issue is on the U.S. Senate calendar right now. The issue
is toxic mercury pollution, which—for legal reasons aimed at protecting
big polluters—the Bush administration pretends is not toxic.
As soon as this afternoon, the Senate has the rare opportunity to go on record
against this duplicitous public health rollback. The Senate will be voting on
a bipartisan resolution (sponsored by Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Susan Collins,
R-Maine, and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine) to disapprove the Bush mercury rules under
the Congressional Review Act.
In all likelihood, this will be the biggest vote on clean air in this Congress.
Even though the more industry-dominated House is unlikely to follow suit, this
is an opportunity for the Senate to strike a blow for public health, common
sense and good government—all in one vote. At the same time,
it’s a chance to send a message that the Senate will not rewrite the Clean
Air Act along the lines sought by the nation’s biggest polluters. (That
would be the ill-named “clear
skies” initiative , which power industry lobbyists and their administration
friends are still huckstering behind the scenes.)
The mercury issues are deceptively simple: As many will recall from
watching local newscasts of mercury spills forcing public schools to evacuate,
mercury is a powerful poison. It harms babies' brains, causing everything from
reduced IQ to mental retardation. Government scientists estimate that 630,000
infants are born each year exposed to unhealthful mercury levels from their
Mercury also poses a threat to adults. As the group Physicians for
Social Responsibility notes, adults exposed to mercury may experience “effects
such as personality changes, tremors, vision problems, poor muscle coordination,
and memory loss.”
Most of the mercury gets into our systems when we eat contaminated
fish. Literally 44 states have issued advisories warning against eating fish
tainted with mercury. Last year, the EPA and FDA warned that women of childbearing
age and children should eat no more than two meals per week of canned light
tuna and should avoid certain fish altogether.
Of course, the poison didn’t get into the fish by magic; coal-burning
electric power plants are the largest source of U.S. mercury emissions, responsible
for more than 40 percent of the total. Mercury spews out the smokestacks, lands
in the water and then moves up the aquatic food chain.
That’s why the Clinton administration—after cleaning up other big
mercury sources such as medical and municipal incinerators—set in motion
a plan to require all coal-burning power plants to control mercury pollution
But the power industry lobby went to work, led by Tom Kuhn, head of the Edison
Electric Institute and a former college classmate of President Bush (as well
as a Bush “Ranger” fundraiser). Kuhn’s connections and cash
In March, EPA announced it was rescinding the Clinton plan, and substituting
an industry-supplied alternative. The polluter plan permits power companies
to buy the right to spew out mercury from other companies—a feature that
could lead to toxic “hot spots” in areas near power plants that
buy such pollution “credits.” The Bush plan, written by a former
power company lobbyist, also would give power companies up to 20 more years
to clean up compared to the Clinton approach. As the Congressional Research
Service reported in April, the net effect of the rule appears to “postpone
until the 2020s direct regulation of mercury.”
The Bush administration advanced two phony arguments to support its
industry-friendly approach: 1) that mercury isn’t really toxic; and 2)
there’s no “commercially available” technology available to
clean it up.
The first argument, of course, is sheer nonsense. Organizations
ranging from the National Academy of Sciences to the American Medical Association
describe mercury as “toxic.” What the Bush administration really
has done is legal legerdemain: by law, a source of toxic pollution must be cleaned
up quickly. EPA has falsely labeled mercury as non-toxic simply to justify weaker
and slower cleanup.
The second argument is also ridiculous. In many cases, most
of the mercury can be cleaned up simply by using long-established technologies
such as scrubbers. And last month, a Colorado-based
company eliminated the last vestige of the Bush argument by announcing it
had received a commercial contract to provide newer technology to clean up mercury
from a power plant in the Midwest obligated to meet a state standard.
As the Senate takes up the Leahy-Collins-Snowe resolution, its members really
only need to remember one thing: Mercury is indeed toxic. Lying to the public
doesn’t make it any less so.