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Mercury: Science vs. politics

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Hartford Courant: Scientists have long known the dangers of exposure to mercury, a toxic element that can damage the brain and nervous system of fetuses and children. Coal-burning power plants annually spew out about 48 tons of mercury, which falls into rivers and lakes before entering the food chain.
Nevertheless, the Bush administration in December proposed giving the utility industry until 2018 to reduce mercury emissions by 70 percent.
Responding to an ensuing uproar from scientists, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael O. Leavitt agreed to review the timetable. Since then, 45 U.S. senators and 10 state attorneys general, including Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, have urged Leavitt to revert to a previously proposed standard.
The EPA had unveiled a stricter standard that would have cut power plant mercury emissions by 90 percent in four years. However, under White House pressure, the agency abandoned that timetable and substituted one far more generous to industry.
In the revised plan, government policy-makers embarrassed themselves by lifting verbatim from material authorized by utility industry sources, according to news reports.
Lax standard
While the EPA was proposing a lax standard that would save utilities billions of dollars, another government agency, the Food and Drug Administration, was warning pregnant women, nursing mothers and children to limit their tuna intake to guard against mercury poisoning.
EPA scientists recently said that one in six unborn children may be at risk from mercury poisoning, which is double previous estimates.
To its credit, Connecticut is setting an example for the nation. Last year this state became the first to regulate power-plant mercury emissions. The legislation even won the backing of PSEG Power, which operates the state's largest coal-burning power plant, Bridgeport Harbor, showing that industry can live with tough air-pollution rules.
Effective in 2008, the state law will require a 92 percent reduction in mercury emissions at Bridgeport Harbor, a standard PSEG expects to meet.
Connecticut's path is worth following. Better yet, Congress should amend the Clean Air Act to impose EPA's original four-year, 90 percent standard on all coal-burning plants nationwide.