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ENVIRONMENT-US: Mercury Rule Falls Short, Groups Charge

Jennifer Mascia

NEW YORK, Mar 18 2005 (IPS) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a Clean Air Mercury Rule this week, marking the first time the Unites States has regulated the mercury emissions that emanate from power plants.

But critics have slammed the regulation as a half-hearted attempt authored by the energy companies that will simply allow mercury emissions to proliferate in the lakes and streams of the Midwest and the Southern United States, poisoning fish and threatening unborn children in the womb.

The new rule "limits mercury emissions from new and existing coal-fired power plants, and creates a market-based cap-and-trade programme that will permanently cap utility mercury emissions," according to the EPA.

Under the cap and trade system, coal-fired power plants that fall below their mercury allowances can sell their leftover allowances to plants that are producing too much mercury, as long as the cap for their region is not exceeded.

Environmentalists claim that this system will create hot spots, actually increasing localised mercury pollution. Plants will no longer be forced to comply with a strict Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) standard, as required by the Clean Air Act, which would have reduced mercury emissions to levels three times lower than the new mercury rule’s cap.

Mercury emitted from coal-fired power plants – about 48 tonnes annually in the U.S. – falls from the air and collects in waterways, turning into poisonous methylmercury when it hits the water. This compound accumulates in many types of fish, which is why health professionals and environmentalists warn pregnant mothers against consuming freshwater fish during pregnancy.

"Airborne mercury knows no boundaries; it is a global problem," said acting EPA administrator Steve Johnson.

"Until global mercury emissions can be reduced – and more importantly, until mercury concentrations in fish caught and sold globally are reduced – it is very important for women of child-bearing age to pay attention to the advisory issued by EPA and FDA (Food and Drug Administration), avoiding certain types of fish and limiting their consumption of other types of fish."

According to the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP), "A study of women in the United States has found that about 1 in 12, or just under five million, have mercury levels in their bodies above the level considered safe. Based on recent exposure data published by the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, some scientists think the number of at risk babies could be as high as 300,000."

And according to a Texas study published in the journal Health and Place last month, mercury exposure to fetuses in the womb can be linked to autism.

"The main finding is that for every thousand pounds (450 kilogrammes) of environmentally released mercury, we saw a 17 percent increase in autism rates," said Claudia Miller of the University of Texas Health Science Centre in San Antonio.

New Jersey Attorney-General Peter Harvey and Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner Bradley Campbell have filed suit against the EPA’s mercury rule, arguing that it "will allow some power plants to actually increase mercury emissions, creating hot spots of mercury deposition around those plants."

The mercury rule emerges in the shadow of the Senate’s failure to produce any meaningful environmental legislation due to partisan wrangling. The Clear Skies Bill, an attempted overhaul of the Clean Air Act, was struck down by the Environment and Public Works Committee in February, preventing its advancement to the full Senate.

The bill, a precursor this week’s EPA mercury ruling, was introduced by George W. Bush in 2002 as the Clear Skies Plan after the White House rejected a more-stringent EPA proposal to reduce air pollution. The bill attempted to cut power-plant emissions by 70 percent.

But the bill’s opponents argued that it would not have achieved that goal fast enough. The bill also failed to address carbon dioxide emissions, which leading scientists say is the main cause of global warming.

The curbing of carbon dioxide emissions is the basis of the Kyoto Protocol, a worldwide environmental treaty that went into effect last month without the backing of the United States.

Republican Senator James Inhofe, chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, has said in the past that he considers global warming to be a "hoax," while Independent Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords called the Clear Skies Act a "giant step backward.."

"This bill allows giant corporate utilities to avoid compliance and stops the enforcement of our existing clean air laws," Jeffords said last month.

The EPA did, however, release the Clean Air Interstate Rule last week, cutting pollution and acid rain and drawing some praise from environmentalists.

But environmentalists say the mercury emissions rule marks another dubious achievement in what has been the administration’s dismal record thus far.

After Bush withdrew from Kyoto soon after taking office, he lifted bans on mining, drilling and logging in the Northwestern U.S.; reversed many environmental rulings made by the Bill Clinton administration; removed protections on various species of endangered animals; and rejected mainstream scientific thought regarding climate change.

The three-year term of former EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman saw many EPA staffers jump ship in frustration over attempts by the administration to sideline its progressive initiatives, including eventually Whitman herself.

And just this week, the Republican-controlled Senate took a key step toward approving drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, sparking further criticism that Bush caters to the corporate polluters who have bought political influence in the White House.

"This fits a disturbing pattern with this administration, always ignoring or suppressing scientific facts that confirm that global warming is real, it’s happening and it’s a serious environmental problem that requires action now to address," said David Doniger, policy director for the climate centre at the National Resources Defence Council (NRDC).

Last month a bipartisan group of seven senators led by Jim Jeffords, the Independent from Vermont, introduced a resolution urging the Bush administration to "engage constructively in International dialogue on mercury and prepare a comprehensive strategy to swiftly reduce global mercury pollution and use."

The resolution was drawn up in advance of the 23rd session of the UNEP Governing Council in Nairobi, Kenya, in February.

At the Nairobi meeting, according to Michael Bender of the Ban Mercury Working Group, the Bush administration "hijacked the process and blocked development of a global strategy despite the overwhelming evidence from the U.N. about the need for immediate and long-term international action on mercury."

"All the U.S. proposed were voluntary mercury partnerships, not reduction goals or anything else," he added. "This is sheer hypocrisy."

UNEP set forth a global mercury assessment in 2003, stating that "coal-fired power stations and waste incinerators now account for around 1,500 tonnes or 70 percent of new, quantified man-made mercury emissions to the atmosphere. "

Last year, a coalition of environmental NGOs, including the National Resources Defence Council and the Ban Mercury Working Group, submitted a document to UNEP urging recommendations for strong global measures to control mercury production and emissions.

Such recommendations included the aggressive implementation of mercury use reduction targets, banning the use of mercury in cosmetics and skin-lightening products, controlling mercury air emissions from coal-fired plants, and the development of a binding international mercury treaty.

The same NGOs vowed to fight Tuesday’s domestic mercury rules, which they viewed as weak, offering a back door for polluters to slip through.

"It’s the do-nothing approach to mercury," said John Walke, NRDC’s director of clean air programmes. "They basically get a holiday that requires them to reduce mercury no more than would incidentally be achieved from their smog and soot cuts."

DEP Commissioner Campbell summarised the administration’s position thus: "Once again, in the choice between families and polluters, President (George W.) Bush has left every child behind in order to reward industry and campaign contributors."

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