The Mercury Rules: Protecting Poison

The problem with trying to keep up with President Bush is that it's a war with many fronts: Beat him down over, say, wetlands protection, and he pops up with a new plan to ease restrictions on cutting down old-growth forests. Block his insane fixation with drilling for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and he tries to kill legislation aimed at getting toxic mercury out of the environment.

The latter action is not hypothetical, it's all-too real, and the victims are mainly pregnant women and non-voting children. In fact, the Bush administration allowed polluter-connected lobbyists to actually write new language to effectively kill mercury legislation from 2000, at the end of the Clinton Presidency. As the Los Angeles Times reported last week, "A December proposal from the Environmental Protection Agency to control mercury emissions from power plants contains several sections similar in language and structure to passages written by power industry lawyers and consultants."

Incoming EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt found himself facing a barrage of criticism for the Bush plan, forcing him to say that he might reconsider and strengthen the rules. According to Frank O"Donnell of the Clean Air Trust, "Leavitt has realized that he's in the middle of a public relations disaster and he's trying to figure out some way to extricate himself."

The most stinging rebukes came from the EPA's own Children's Health Protection Advisory Committee, which proclaimed that the plan "does not sufficiently protect our nation's children." The Bush plan would maintain high levels of mercury emissions for the next decade, with electric utilities that have contributed to the President's re-election raking in the profits.

Seven environmental groups filed a federal lawsuit attempting to block the EPA mercury rules, as well as other lax standards on sulfur dioxide and other toxins. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, Bush would allow polluters to monitor themselves, and do so as infrequently as twice in five years. "Inadequate monitoring results in higher emissions," says Eric Schaeffer, director of the Environmental Integrity Project, who notes that the EPA's policy amounts to "don't ask, don't tell."

The EPA's own research shows that available technology could reduce mercury emissions by 90 percent, and the Clinton legislation was a start at making that reality.

Ultimately, will President Bush be embarrassed by all the bad press and reconsider his anti-environmental onslaught? Not likely. At this point, he realizes he's long since lost the environmental vote and (despite the pleas of several campaign advisers telling him to mind this powerful constituency) cares far more about polluter cash. Bush's campaign is awash in large contributions from electric utilities.

There's still time to make your thoughts known on the Bush mercury rules. The administration is counting on the fact that most people don't follow environmental issues closely. The assumption is that when the President goes on television and talks about his "Healthy Forests" initiative or his "Clean Skies" proposals, tied to visuals of a flannel-shirted national park tour, people will buy his snake oil.

But mercury shouldn't be given a free pass for political reasons. It kills and sickens, even in small doses. In January, a high school student in Nevada brought a quarter cup of mercury to class, contaminating classrooms, clothing and even the school bus. The cleanup cost more than $100,000 and sent one 17-year-old to the hospital's intensive-care unit for a week. His problems could be lifelong.

For the full story on mercury, visit the online home of the Mercury Policy Project.