March 22, 2005
The Washington Post reported this morning that the EPA ignored an EPA-sponsored report saying that enforcing the existing mercury regulations would yield more than a 600 percent return on the cost of cleanup. Instead, they chose to relax the rules on mercury for another 20 years, condemning a new generation of children to this poison. Frank O'Donnell gives the behind-the-scenes story.
Frank O'Donnell is president of Clean Air Watch, a 501 (c) 3 non-partisan, non-profit organization aimed at educating the public about clean air and the need for an effective Clean Air Act.
You almost have to pity Steve Johnson, recently tapped by President Bush to head the Environmental Protection Agency. A scientist and career EPA employee, Johnson was put in place to create the perception that major EPA actions were based on science instead of politics. But right out of the gate, Johnson was forced to swallow hard and do exactly what his Bush administration predecessors did—make a big decision based not on science, but on a White House dictate aimed at befriending political supporters.
The March 15 decision was about regulating electric utility industry emissions of toxic mercury, which spews from smokestacks of coal-burning power plants. Under orders from the White House, Johnson basically gave the electric power industry a huge gift: rather than enforcing the Clean Air Act—and insisting that every coal-burning power plant in the nation clean up toxic mercury within the next several years—the EPA gave the coal burners more than two decades to make significant reductions in emissions of this poison. Even then, the cleanup would be less than what could be achieved with technologies available today.
In scientific terms, it's a no-brainer to clean up mercury. It poisons fish and can harm the brains of developing fetuses or nursing babies. Federal authorities note at least one woman in 12 of child-bearing age already has too much mercury in her system. The problem is so widespread that 45 states have issued advisories urging people to limit or avoid consumption of mercury-contaminated fish.
Indeed, we've known for generations that mercury is dangerous. Mercury once was used in felt production, until felt hat makers started getting tremors—a development that led to the Mad Hatter character in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and the popular phrase "mad as a hatter."
In an effort to crack down on the toxin, the Clinton administration cleaned up most of the mercury from two big smokestack sources—municipal waste incinerators and medical incinerators. And it set in motion a plan to do the same with the biggest remaining source, the electric power industry. Moving forward with the Clinton plan, EPA staffers suggested early in the Bush administration that the power industry could eliminate 90 percent of its mercury pollution up by 2008.
That was enough to wake up power industry lobbyists, led by Edison Electric Institute President Tom Kuhn, President Bush's former college classmate and "Pioneer" presidential fundraiser. (Other "Pioneers" or "Rangers" included executives and lobbyists for such power companies as Southern Company, Cinergy and TXU.) Killing the tough mercury requirements envisioned by Clinton became a top industry priority. The lobbyists set out to replace the planned cleanup rule with a much more industry-friendly plan similar to the proposed so-called "clear skies" legislation, which they helped write.
The industry effort came with cash. Power companies spent more than $37 million on campaign contributions since the 2000 election—with President Bush the leading recipient.
The industry lobbying paid dividends. As EPA was drafting its proposed rules, the agency's politically appointed head of air pollution control, Jeffrey Holmstead, was called to the White House. There he received the agency's marching orders from James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. And so politics and money trumped science.
Both EPA's inspector general and the Government Accountability Office have noted irregularities in the process EPA used to write its mercury rule. The EPA rule was doctored to make sure it wasn't better than "clear skies." The White House refused to allow EPA staff to even consider tougher cleanup alternatives. And, as the Washington Post has noted, EPA ignored a Harvard study (paid for by the EPA and co-authored by an EPA scientist) which predicted huge health benefits from mercury cleanup.
How Bad Is Bush's Plan?
A child born today would be in college—assuming his or her brain wasn't impaired by mercury—before the rule would take full effect. Another generation of babies will be threatened by the poison that will continue wafting from power company smokestacks.
The decision was so obviously polluted that it was even denounced by 11 moderate House Republicans, led by Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., who noted that there are already available mercury cleanup devices that are "being aggressively developed, demonstrated and deployed."
Desperate to put some positive "spin" on the story, EPA asserted that cleaning up power plants wouldn't do much good anyway, since most of the fish we eat comes from international waters.
The censored Harvard study disputed this "spin." And EPA also forgot to mention that in February, the Bush administration killed a European initiative to develop an international treaty to reduce mercury pollution worldwide. The Bush strategy, in other words, was blame U.S. mercury problems on pollution from overseas, while killing any effort to take international action.
It is ironic, of course, that an administration which makes so much about "moral" issues and protecting what it terms "the unborn," would abandon that kind of thinking when it conflicts with the needs of well-heeled campaign supporters. One lesson learned from this sorry episode: Babies don't make campaign contributions. Big energy companies do.
The real question now: Will any senators demand to explore this issue more thoroughly—including the role of the White House—when the EPA's Steve Johnson comes before them for confirmation hearings later this year?