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 mothers’ bodies.
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 by 2008.
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 worked.
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.