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George Bush On Mercury Pollution: Don’t Eat Tuna Fish

Intervention | April 4, 2005
By Gerald Rellick

Professing a deep belief in the sanctity of life, particularly for the unborn, George Bush is callously indifferent about the toxic effects of mercury on human fetuses.

Mercury is an extremely toxic environmental pollutant that has entered our food system to an alarming extent. It is labeled a neurotoxin because it damages the nervous system, the brain and the spinal cord. Those at greatest risk are fetuses and young children because their nervous systems are still developing. They are many times more sensitive to mercury than adults. Overexposure to mercury may cause a child to be late in beginning to walk and talk, permanent damage to motor functions, and any number of lifelong learning problems.

While no one would ever call George Bush environment-friendly, one might have expected that his professed belief in the sanctity of life, particularly that of the unborn, would have made him more than just a bit concerned about the toxic effects of mercury on human fetuses. But not so. Earlier this year Bush proposed his Clear Skies legislation to revamp a range of environmental regulations. One effect would have been to ease mercury emission standards that were proposed by the Clinton administration EPA. Fortunately, the bill failed to get out of Senate committee, a Republican controlled committee. The same initiative failed during Bush’s first term. And it is not without some irony that Bush’s initiative would have overturned key provisions of the last and strictest amendment to the Clean Air Act, passed in 1990 under the first President Bush.

But this George Bush, acting with his typical pettiness, decided to ignore congress and ignore a public that has favored strong mercury pollution standards. Bush directed the EPA to review existing regulations under the current law to find some loophole that would, in effect, allow him to have his -- and industry’s -- way. And guess what? With the aid of some Bush appointees at the EPA, they succeeded in doing just that. At least for now anyway, but public outrage is building.

Some Background

Mercury is familiar to most of us as a heavy, silvery liquid metal, often called quicksilver. In its elemental form it is relatively harmless unless heated. Mercury vapor is extremely toxic, but this risk has long been known and very few people are ever at risk from this source of mercury. However, mercury is an impurity in fossil fuels, particularly coal, and is released into the atmosphere from combustion. Of the 150 tons of mercury released each year in the U.S., 48 tons, or about one-third, is from coal-fired electric power plants. Establishing much needed mercury emission standards and the means of attaining them for these sources are the issues now before the country.

Mercury is unique among air pollutants in that it must first be deposited in water sources to produce its maximal toxic effects. Bacteria in the sediment converts simple mercury to an organic form known as methylmercury which rapidly accumulates up the aquatic food chain in a process called bioaccumulation. This leads to progressively higher concentrations in larger predatory fish. Fish do not readily excrete methylmercury and it accumulates in their tissues over time. Among ocean fish, the highest methylmercury levels are found in shark, swordfish and tuna. More than 60,000 children are born in the U.S. each year with neurodevelopmental impairments due to their prenatal exposure to methylmercury. And the EPA estimates that as many as 15 percent of American women have methylmercury blood levels that pose a risk to their potential fetuses. This translates into about 600,000 at-risk babies born each year. Pregnant women are now advised by some health experts to avoid tuna altogether, which effectively puts tuna in the same category as smoking, drugs and alcohol. The following citation from the Natural Resources Defense Council summarizes the mechanism of human toxicity of methylmercury:

“Methylmercury halts cells’ division in the fetal brain by binding directly to chromosomes and interfering with their ability to make copies of themselves. It also interferes with the migration of brain cells, especially in the cerebellum, the control center for balance and muscle coordination. Fetuses receive higher doses than adults because methyl mercury is actively pumped across the placenta; studies consistently find higher levels of methylmercury in the blood of newborns than in blood samples drawn from their mothers.”

Clinton and Bush on Mercury

In the waning days of the Clinton administration the EPA concluded that federal law required it to treat mercury as a toxic pollutant (as opposed to simply hazardous), putting it in the same category as lead and asbestos. Specifically, the Clean Air Act of 1990 mandates that toxic pollutants be controlled to emissions achievable by the “Maximum Achievable Control Technologies” (MACT). Consistent with this law the Clinton EPA proposed reducing mercury emissions from electric-power utilities by 90% by the end of 2007, a reduction from the current 48 tons per year to 5 tons per year.

While there has been some criticism recently from right-wing groups about the timing of this move, it is difficult to argue that the Clinton people had anything but the country’s best interests in mind. After all, mercury destroys children. And in December 2001, the Bush EPA basically agreed with these strict emission standards. According to a report by the Presbyterian Church of the United States, “The [Bush] EPA informed the electric power industry that they believed that the MACT standard would result in a 90 percent reduction in mercury from power plants…[and] this reduction was to occur at each plant and no trading of emissions between plants was to be permitted.”

But sometime between then and January 2004 the Bush administration changed its mind, which in itself is not necessarily bad. As part of its Clear Skies legislation package, it proposed scaling back these strict standards because they were not deemed to be cost effective and imposed too great a burden on industry. But for the second time in Bush’s presidency, the legislation failed in a Republican-controlled Senate.

Bush EPA Steps In

As George Bush has shown so often in the past, when he fails to get his way he gets nasty. His mantra has always been, “You can get more with a gun and a smile than with just a smile.” So, failing in Congress, Bush turned to his EPA to see what could be done by federal mandate. Again, there is nothing wrong with employing federal power, so long as it stays within the law.

In short, the Bush EPA came up with a much more leisurely pace for mercury reduction. It proposed reducing mercury emissions to 34 tons per year by 2010 and to 15 tons by 2018. The latter value represents a 70% reduction in mercury over approximately the next 13 years. Recall that the Clinton proposal, which was basically accepted by the Bush EPA in December 2001, would have reduced emissions by 90% in just four years. This is an enormous difference. It would allow an additional 500 tons of mercury to be dumped into the atmosphere by 2018.

How did the Bush EPA arrive at these values?

It has been reported by some sources that the EPA decided to reclassify mercury as a nontoxic pollutant, putting it in the same category as sulfur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen. This would have allowed it to be treated under the “cap-and-trade” option for these pollutants. Cap-and-trade is essentially a market-based approach that allows companies that do better than their pollution allowances to sell pollution “credits” to companies that fail to meet requirements. The latter companies can therefore “pay to pollute.” This approach has worked well for hazardous (but non-toxic) gaseous pollutants, essentially because the national cap they place on these emissions is relevant and effective for airborne pollutants that are distributed “globally,” that is, over extremely large distances.

But this isn’t exactly what the Bush EPA did. They recognized that there was no denying the MACT requirement for mercury within the provisions of the Clean Air Act. It is a toxic pollutant and must be so regulated: “[The law] requires that, as a minimum, a MACT standard cannot be less stringent than the average emission reductions achieved by the top performing 12 percent of units in a category (e.g., all coal-burning utilities).” These are the words from a report from the EPA Inspector General in response to a Senate request to investigate EPA’s methodology in reaching their recommended emission levels. But as the IG Report also makes clear, “EPA has wide latitude in the types of emissions data used to determine the MACT floor, including the discretion to select a reasonable method to estimate emissions achieved, and to address variability to account for the most adverse operating conditions reasonably foreseeable.” It is within the context of this EPA “flexibility” that the matter begins to turn ugly.

First, EPA concluded that the mercury emission data from the top 12 percent of performing units was not adequate for their analysis, and so added an “increased number of emission points…to calculate the MACT limits.” This had the effect of raising the average value of the emission levels. More significantly, the EPA rejected the idea of employing the best available control technology. According to the EPA IG report:

“Unlike many previous MACT standards, the proposed…standard would not require the installation of a specific control technology since no mercury-specific control technology had been installed in utilities. EPA determined that emerging mercury-specific technologies were not yet commercially available for the utility industry.”

While it is true that mercury-specific technologies had not yet been installed by any utility, such technologies exist. They include particulate scrubbers, activated carbon injectors, and methods of catalytic conversion.

In any event, using this modified approach, and after many iterations of their analyses, EPA settled on 34 ton per year as its MACT level. According to the IG report, EPA officials concluded that this “was the lowest level of mercury emissions [EPA] could reasonably expect this industry to achieve by 2010.”

The Cap-and-Trade, Multi-pollutant Program

Emission controls now in place for sulfur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen also help reduce mercury emissions, although not nearly as effectively as the mercury-specific technologies. As part of the failed Clear Skies legislation, EPA had proposed including mercury in the same category as these pollutants. This would have allowed it to be controlled by the cap-and-trade, multi-pollutant program. Mercury reduction achieved in this manner is referred to as a co-benefit.

Now, it just so happens that EPA’s cap-and-trade, co-benefit analysis, performed as part of Clear Skies, also arrived at a mercury emission level of 34 tons per year. Since cap-and-trade and MACT yielded the exact same results, what else could our poor EPA officials do but go with cap-and-trade? And they were able to argue that they had employed a valid MACT approach and were, therefore, in compliance with federal law. But does anyone believe this was a coincidence -- that two independent analyses of completely different approaches to mercury emission control would arrive at the same value? Certainly not the EPA’s Inspector General. The IG report concludes:

“Evidence indicates that EPA senior management instructed EPA staff to develop a MACT standard for mercury that would result in national emissions of 34 tons
annually, instead of basing the standard on an unbiased calculation of what the top performing units were achieving in practice…[and further,] EPA documents and an analysis of the process used to compute the MACT floor support EPA staff’s statements that the MACT floor computations were developed to produce the desired [and pre-determined] national emissions of 34 tons per year.”

So, once again we see science policy – in this case science that affects the public health – become not merely subordinated, but deceptively manipulated, to satisfy corporate interests that are coincident with the Bush political ideology. One wonders if we have all become so numbed by the ceaseless deception and misrepresentations of this immoral administration that we just turn away from such matters now, either in total frustration or utter disgust.

Perhaps not. After the EPA announced it was accepting comments on its proposal to reduce mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants, they received over 680,000 responses — breaking all previous EPA rule comment records. Pennsylvania was the first state to announce it was challenging the EPA ruling in federal court. Pennsylvania Environmental Protection Secretary Kathleen A. McGinty had particularly harsh and personal words for George Bush: “The President speaks of a 'culture of life.' But his policy fails terribly to protect life from this neurotoxin. We hope that he will direct EPA to act in keeping with his stated commitment to life." And just this week, nine more states that also have large numbers of coal-fired plants, or are downwind of such plants -- and whose citizens are at the greatest risk from mercury -- followed suit.

Recall George Bush’s now infamous midnight flight to Washington to sign the bill that allowed the federal government to intervene in the Terri Schiavo matter. So much for his and the Republican Party’s commitment to states’ rights. It would be a sweet irony indeed if states’ rights became George Bush’s Waterloo. Here in California there is optimism that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger will see his “Terminator” mission and do the right thing on mercury pollution. California Attorney General Bill Lockyer started the ball rolling: "These rules do much more than violate federal law. They ignore science, suppress evidence and make the health of women and children a lower priority than the financial health of industry. Our states and our people cannot afford to let them stand."

Let the fight begin.

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