updated 2/15/2005 9:22:47 PM ET 2005-02-16T02:22:47

Dangers of toxic mercury pollution in the environment have been overstated, the House Resources Committee says in a report issued in anticipation of new regulatory proposals from the Bush administration.

The report, written by aides to the committee’s majority Republicans and being released Wednesday, also says no link between mercury from coal-burning power plants and levels of mercury in fish has been scientifically established.

“After an exhaustive review of all the science surrounding the mercury debate, it is clear that some special-interest groups are crying wolf,” said the panel’s chairman, Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif.

Eat fish, report says
The report said mercury levels in fish had remained constant or had declined slightly since the 1970s. “Scaring people away from consuming fish is creating a public health crisis in its own right,” it said.

The Food and Drug Administration has warned that high levels of mercury in some fish, including albacore tuna, can pose a hazard for children and for women who are pregnant or nursing. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 8 percent of U.S. women of childbearing age have enough mercury in their blood to put a fetus at risk.

Under a court agreement with the Natural Resources Defense Council, the EPA is expected to issue a rule by March 15 to deal with mercury coming out coal-burning power plants’ smokestacks.

The Bush administration, however, disputes the Clinton administration determination that mercury should be regulated as a hazardous substance and that about 450 power plants should be forced to buy the “maximum achievable control technology” to reduce it.

Instead, the EPA now favors an industry-backed alternative that would order a reduction in mercury pollution nationwide, with individual plants permitted to meet their allowance by buying pollution rights from companies that are already in compliance.

“With a more restrictive, unnecessary regulation, we could see a large portion of this country’s coal supplies become useless,” said Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., chairman of the resource panel’s subcommittee on energy and resources. “A cap-and-trade approach will reduce mercury emissions while maintaining coal as a viable source of energy.”

Environmentalists said the committee’s conclusions were contradicted by health advisories from the FDA, the EPA and state agencies across the country.

“The House report represents outrageous misinformation that reads like the utility industry’s talking points,” said John Walke, the NRDC’s director for clean air.

The EPA said its proposal would cut mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants by 70 percent, from the current 48 tons a year to 15 tons a year, by 2018.

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