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Science or politics?

It's up to the EPA administrator to override industry-written rules that undercut efforts to reduce the poisonous effects of mercury pollution.

St. Petersburg Times

A St. Petersburg Times Editorial

12th April 2004

Is Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Leavitt going to bring professionalism back to the regulatory process or be a Bush administration puppet? His decision on mercury pollution could provide the answer.

Even Leavitt seemed surprised to learn that, before his appointment, EPA had bypassed the usual scientific method in adopting mercury abatement rules. Instead, the agency borrowed whole paragraphs from suggestions by the utility industry, whose coal-fired power plants produce most mercury pollution. When Leavitt discovered those shortcomings, he ordered more analysis and insisted he wanted the regulation process "done right."

That would be refreshing. To date, the EPA has done the opposite of the right thing in its handling of mercury pollution.

The threat is real. According to EPA experts, as many as 630,000 infants born during the 12-month period studied could have unsafe blood mercury levels. Airborne mercury ends up in the nation's lakes, rivers and coastal waters where it accumulates in fish. Even a small amount of contaminated fish in a pregnant woman's diet can threaten her foetus and lead to developmental delays. Older children and adults can also suffer neurological damage from ingesting too much mercury.

The Bush administration is required to have rules in place by the end of the year to reduce mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants, but a curious thing happened along the way. EPA staffers were told to postpone studies that would have provided a scientific rationale for choosing among regulatory alternatives, according to the Los Angeles Times. Then a federal advisory panel that was supposed to use that data to make a recommendation had its meetings cancelled. Panel member John Paul, a Republican, concluded that EPA officials chose a process "that would support the conclusion they wanted to reach."

The official who made those decisions is Jeffrey Holmstead, head of the EPA's Office of Air and Radiation. He was a utility industry lobbyist prior to his appointment. Staffers told the Los Angeles Times that Holmstead cited "White House concern" as his reason for ignoring the established rulemaking procedures.

In this regulatory surrender, the EPA ended up with a "cap-and-trade" plan in which some polluting plants could continue to spew out mercury if they bought credits from other plants that had installed pollution controls. So instead of a 90-percent reduction in mercury by 2008 (as the Clinton administration anticipated), the industry would have to cut mercury emissions by only 70 percent over the next 15 years. Now, EPA staffers say polluters could manipulate the system so even that unambitious goal may not be achieved until 2025 or later.

That solution isn't good enough for 45 senators, including seven Republicans, who sent a letter to Leavitt reminding him of his responsibility and authority to protect public health. "We do not believe the EPA's current proposals (on mercury pollution) are sufficient or defensible," the letter states.

If Leavitt takes his job seriously, he will choose science over politics and begin anew on mercury pollution regulations. Better that the EPA eat humble pie than that Americans eat mercury-tainted fish for decades to come.