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Bush plan on mercury pollution called sell-out

Democratic presidential candidates condemn proposed 10-year extension on reduction in emissions

By H. Josef Hebert, Associated Press

Oakland Herald Tribune

4th December 2003

WASHINGTON -- A Bush administration proposal on mercury pollution was defended by the White House on Wednesday but criticized by two Democratic presidential candidates as an example of protecting industry at the expense of public health.

The regulation would allow power plant owners to postpone, in some cases for as long a decade, requirements that they install specific technology designed to reduce mercury pollution, according to a draft of the document.

The regulation would allow utilities to meet their mercury reduction targets over the next six years from "co-benefits" as a result of installing pollution controls that are being put in anyway to capture smog and acid rain.

This would reduce mercury emissions by about 34 tons per year, or 30 percent, by 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates. Critics of the plan said that's only about a third of the reductions that could be achieved under a more ambitious requirement proposed in 2000 by the Clinton administration. That would have required mercury controls be installed at every plant by 2008.

The more stringent requirements, which could be achieved only by mercury-specific pollution controls, would not kick in until 2018 under the Bush administration proposal. The plan also would allow utilities to buy pollution credits.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan defended the proposal Wednesday.

"We believe a tough, mandatory cap with trading offers promise for greater reductions in mercury emissions over a longer period because of improvements in technology and innovation that would follow," said McClellan.

Two Democratic presidential candidates and the top Democrat in the Senate accused the administration of jeopardizing public health to help electric utilities, which have argued for more time to address the issue.

"We've got mercury in our air, mercury in our water and mercury in our food," said Democratic presidential hopeful Wesley Clark.

Another Bush challenger, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who also is a physician, noted that 8 percent of women of childbearing age have been found to have unsafe levels of mercury in their blood.

He accused the Bush administration "of selling our health, our environment and our economic security to its campaign contributors" and urged Bush to "reconsider ... and put the public health of the nation over the profit of a few energy corporations."

Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota accused the Bush administration of "choosing special interests over the health of children and families."

Carol Browner, who was head of the EPA during the Clinton administration, directed in late 2000 that mercury be regulated as a toxic, hazardous substance requiring utilities to install "maximum achievable control technology" at each of nearly 500 coal-fired power plants.

After Bush took office, the utilities challenged the Browner policy in court. The lawsuit still is pending.

The latest EPA proposal would abandon that approach.

Mercury is a persistent substance that affects the nervous system and is especially dangerous for pregnant women and children. Mercury concentrations in fish have prompted at least 43 states to issue fish consumption advisories. Forty percent of mercury emissions come from the smokestacks of coal-burning power plants, but the emissions have never been regulated as a pollutant.