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Getting heated over mercury
Regulation rollback is boon for utilities, bad for kids
by Molly Ivins
December 12, 2003

Getting heated over mercury Regulation rollback is boon for utilities, bad for kids AUSTIN, Texas -- I can't tell whether this administration is flaunting its cynicism, its contempt for science or its conviction that when in power you help your contributors and fry your enemies. Although how millions of small children and unborn fetuses came to be enemies of Bush & Co. is beyond my political or theological understanding.

We are talking about the rollback announced last week in regulating mercury pollution. Except, of course, it wasn't announced as a rollback, it was announced as a great step forward. This raises the always timely question, "How dumb do they think we are?" and this time the answer is "profoundly dumb," because it is real hard to get fooled by this one. You look at the numbers and tell me.

Mercury is a neurotoxin that damages the brains and nervous systems of fetuses and young children, and probably affects adults as well. It is one of the suspected, though not proven, causes of recent increases in autism, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. It is known to cause learning and attention disabilities and mental retardation.

Eight percent of American women of childbearing age already have mercury in their blood above the EPA's "safe level." Mercury emissions from power plants get into rain clouds and come down in lakes and rivers, there poisoning fish and the people who eat them. Coal-fired power plants are the largest source of mercury, spewing 50 tons a year into the air, about 40 percent of the total. In December 2000, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a finding requiring the maximum amount of technically achievable reduction in mercury. This was expected to result in a 90 percent mercury reduction by 2007. Instead, the new EPA proposals downgrade mercury emissions -- particularly mercury emissions from the utility industry -- by taking it out of the "hazardous pollutant" category. It would be funny if it weren't so sad.

Simply by implementing the laws already on the books, annual mercury emissions from power plants could be reduced to 5 tons annually by 2007. But Bush's EPA last week introduced a new plan to cap emission at 34 tons a year by 2010 and then 15 tons by 2018. This means hundreds of more tons of mercury discharged over the next 15 years, and that many more children born brain-damaged. I'd really like to know if John Graham, Bush's cost-benefit guru at the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, factored in the cost of special ed, health care and caretaking for those kids.

The good news is this will save the utility industry hundreds of millions of dollars -- worth every retarded child, eh? Besides, the coal industry contributed more than $250,000 to Bush's last campaign, and you didn't. John Walke, clean air director of the Natural Resource Defense Council, called it "a grotesque giveaway."

The truth is, the EPA is doing nothing about mercury pollution. The decrease to 34 tons a year is a byproduct of new filtering requirements for nitrogen (causes smog) and sulfur dioxide (causes acid rain), which aren't much to write home about, either. Mike Leavitt, new head of the EPA, defended the proposal as an emissions-trading program, like the one that has reduced acid rain. But the Environmental Defense Fund, which has endorsed the use of market-based, cap-and-trade systems for reducing some pollutants, is appalled by the mercury decision and apparently not comforted by the EPA's decision to change mercury's classification.

One reason cap-and-trade on mercury pollution won't work is it is pretty much site-specific. It hangs around the neighborhood it comes from, so you get dangerous pockets of it, "hot spots" like the ones in South Florida.

In a nicely dovetailed bureaucratic action, the Food and Drug Administration chimed in with a new, softer advisory on mercury-contaminated fish consumption. Consumers Union believes the new FDA advisory is so vague as to which fish are likely to have concentrations of mercury (those at the top of the fish food chain), it is largely useless. Probably the most infamous case of mercury poisoning was in the Japanese village of Minamata. Eugene W. Smith, the great photojournalist, took the picture of the Minamata Madonna, gently holding her hopelessly deformed and retarded child in a steam bath. I once heard a Texas politician being begged to consider doing something "for the children of Texas." He inquired back, "Do the little bastards have a PAC?"

Well, no they don't. But they have mommies. Their mommies can read numbers. Their mommies know the difference between 50 tons a year and 5 tons a year. Mommies know what a campaign contribution is. Mommies can tell the difference between a cynical sack of excrement and safe babies. Mommies can get very angry. You've got to watch those mommies, Karl.

Posted: December 15, 2003


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