April 5 -- While working with Environmental
Protection Agency officials to write regulations
for coal-fired power plants over several recent
months, White House staff members played down
the toxic effects of mercury, hundreds of
pages of documents and e-mail messages show.
staff members deleted or modified information
on mercury that employees of the environmental
agency say was drawn largely from a 2000 report
by the National Academy of Sciences that Congress
had commissioned to settle the scientific
debate about the risks of mercury.
interviews, 6 of 10 members of the academy's
panel on mercury said the changes did not
introduce inaccuracies. They said that many
of the revisions sharpened the scientific
points being made and that justification could
be made for or against other changes. Most
changes were made by the White House's Office
of Management and Budget, which employs economists
and scientists to review regulations.
scientists on the academy panel and others
outside it as well as environmentalists and
politicians expressed concern in recent interviews
that a host of subtle changes by White House
staff members resulted in proposed rules that
played down the health risks associated with
mercury from coal-fired power plants. The
proposal largely tracks suggestions from the
the panel members said the changes did not
introduce outright errors, they said they
were concerned because the White House almost
uniformly minimized the health risks in instances
where there could be disagreement.
they are saying is not scientifically invalid
on its face," said Alan Stern, a New Jersey
toxicologist who served on the panel. "Partially
they edited for clarity and relevance from
a scientific standpoint. But there appears
to be an emphasis on wordsmithing that is
not necessarily dictated by the science."
Thursday attorneys general from 10 states
and 45 senators asked the E.P.A. to scrap
the proposed rules, saying they were not strict
also asked Michael O. Leavitt, the agency's
administrator, to extend the comment period
for the rules, which now ends April 30. Under
a court-ordered agreement, the rules are to
be in final form by Dec. 15.
some cases, White House staff members suggested
phrasing that minimized the links between
power plants and elevated levels of mercury
in fish, the primary source from which Americans
accumulate mercury in their bodies, in a form
known as methylmercury.
academy has found that exposure to elevated
levels of mercury can damage the brains of
children and fetuses.
another instance, a draft passage originally
read, "Recent published studies have shown
an association between methylmercury exposure
and an increased risk of heart attacks and
coronary disease in adult men."
was changed to "it has been hypothesized that
there is an association between methylmercury
exposure and an increased risk of coronary
disease; however this warrants further study
as the new studies currently available present
change understates known science, some academy
panel members said in interviews.
proposed regulations are available on the
E.P.A. Web site (epa.gov/). The proposed rules
would limit mercury emissions by an estimated
70 percent over decades and would also allow
power plants to buy and sell among themselves
the rights to create mercury pollution.
Leavitt is reconsidering elements of the rules.
amounts of mercury occur naturally in the
environment. In December 2000, however, the
environmental agency concluded that mercury
from power plants should be classified as
a hazardous air pollutant to be strictly regulated
under the Clean Air Act. In December 2003,
the Bush administration reversed that finding.
proposed regulations for power plants ‹ the
single-largest source of mercury emissions
in the United States ‹ are the culmination
of 14 years of lawsuits, scientific review
and government reports. Coal and utility groups
lobbied intensively to help shape the regulations,
which will cost billions of dollars. Paragraphs
in the proposed rules are inserted nearly
verbatim from memorandums from the firm of
Latham & Watkins, where two top political
officials in the E.P.A.'s office overseeing
air regulations, Bill Wehrum and Jeffrey Holmstead,
White House officials and E.P.A. political
appointees say the changes in the draft rules
reflect the typical back and forth of developing
regulations among agencies, and environmental
agency officials had the option of rejecting
the suggestions, which in some cases they
is a standard collaborative process that involved
experts across the government to create a
solid product," said Dana Perino, the spokeswoman
from the Council on Environmental Quality,
which coordinates federal environmental efforts.
some critics are not convinced. "This is a
pattern of undermining and disregarding science
on political considerations," said Senator
Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York,
citing a recent letter by the Union of Concerned
Scientists, signed by 60 scientists, including
20 Nobel laureates, which criticized the administration's
handling of science issues.
feel the White House's Office of Management
and Budget is overstepping its bounds. "O.M.B.'s
role is supposed to be to review the economics
of rules ‹ which they did very poorly here
‹ not to fly speck the science and minimize
health threats," said Lisa Heinzerling, a
professor at Georgetown University who is
a co-author of the book "Priceless," on cost-benefit
an E.P.A. draft of the proposed regulations
circulated in November, a White House staff
member crossed out the word "confirmed" from
the phrase describing mercury as a "confirmed
public health risk." In some instances, sentences
in the final proposals were changed to mercury
Wehrum, the chief counsel of E.P.A.'s air
regulation office, said that the handwritten
changes were prompted by his agency's desire
to use more precise legal language from the
Clean Air Act.
members of the National Academy said that
sections of the regulations on health effects
could have been made more clear, but that
the science was strong enough not to delete
official with the Office of Management and
Budget who emphasized that neurologic risks
to children were the most important concern,
said language on other health effects was
deleted or softened for a number of reasons.
In some cases the draft had overstated the
known science, while in others, like cerebral
palsy, the effects were not relevant to mercury
exposure in fish or power plants.
taking into account studies that have been
published since their report in 2000, some
panel members said the language was made too
soft in several cases.
is increasing evidence of an association between
mercury exposure and cardiovascular effects,"
said Thomas Burke, an epidemiologist from
Johns Hopkins University and a member of the
panel. "I would call it stronger than a hypothesis."
another case, a toxicologist with the Office
of Management and Budget recommended changes
to a sentence saying children exposed to mercury
in the womb "are at increased risk of poor
performance on neurobehavioral tests." The
final sentence that was published said children
"may be at increased risk." That pattern was
repeated a number of times throughout regulations
where "are" or "can" was changed to "may."
The official said that the softened language
reflected the fact that low levels of mercury
exposure below the safe dose were not known
to be risky, even to children.
scientists interpret the edit differently.
Joseph L. Jacobson, a professor of psychology
at Wayne State University, who served on the
academy panel, said, " `May be' suggests an
effort to discount the fact that we have consistent
evidence across more than one study."
it is standard for the White House to review
federal agency testimony and reports, E.P.A.
staff members say the Bush administration
also minimized the amount of mercury that
comes from power plants. Over agency staff
objections, the White House on several occasions
in the past year added the statement that
coal burning produces "roughly one percent
of mercury in the global pool."
to the E.P.A. staff, the 1 percent figure
was added to an agency report on children's
health; Senate testimony by Christie Whitman,
who was the E.P.A. administrator; and Senate
testimony of Mr. Holmstead, who is the assistant
agency administrator for air.
that figure is cited in the E.P.A.'s 1997
report to Congress, agency staff members and
independent scientists say it is misleading
because much of the mercury that ends up in
the nation's water and soil comes from nearby
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