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Audit: EPA minimized mercury risks

The Bush administration overlooked health effects and sided with the electric industry in producing rules for reducing toxic mercury pollution, the Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general said Thursday.
Coal-fired power units like the Tennessee Valley Authority's Cumberland Fossil Plant near Clarksville, Tenn., are responsible for 40 percent of the mercury emitted into the air across the United States.Ron Schmitt / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Bush administration overlooked health effects and sided with the electric industry in developing rules for cutting toxic mercury pollution, the Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general said Thursday.

The agency fell short of its own requirements and presidential orders by “not fully analyzing the cost-benefit of regulatory alternatives and not fully assessing the rule’s impact on children’s health,” the agency’s internal watchdog said in a 54-page report.

Nikki Tinsley’s report said the EPA based its mercury pollution limits on an analysis submitted by Western Energy Supply and Transmission Associates, a research and advocacy group representing 17 coal-fired utilities in eight Western states.

The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to set the limits based on the most advanced pollution controls used by industry. Tinsley said agency workers were instructed by “EPA senior management” to develop a standard compared with other regulations and a White House legislative plan, “instead of basing the standard on an unbiased determination” of the limits.

Bill Becker, director of a coalition of state and city air quality officials, called the findings "troubling, but not unexpected. Nearly every state in the country has issued fish consumption advisories due to mercury-poisoned waters. EPA must comply with the law and require stringent cleanup measures at utilities.”

Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, an industry group, said the report appeared "to go well beyond the expertise of the office. The inspector general has no policymaking or legal background, and yet today's report opines in those areas."

'Not true,' officials say
In response to the report, EPA officials said it was “not true” that the administration proposed mercury pollution standards without following requirements of the law.

Mercury from power plants settles in waterways and accumulates in fish. The toxic metal can cause neurological and developmental problems, particularly in fetuses and young children. It also is being studied for risks associated with cardiovascular diseases.

Sen. Jim Jeffords and six Democratic senators asked Tinsley in April to investigate how the EPA put together the mercury rule it proposed in December 2003.

“Unfortunately, this report confirms that the administration’s proposal to regulate mercury compromises children’s health for the benefit of corporate profits,” said Jeffords, an independent from Vermont.

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 pregnant or nursing.

The EPA estimates that about 8 percent of American women of childbearing age have enough mercury in their blood to put a fetus at risk.

EPA spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman said the rule’s purpose is to protect children and women of child-bearing ages, adding that a final decision on it hasn’t been made and that more analyses are being done.

She said EPA does not want its regulation to encourage utilities to switch from coal to natural gas, and pointed out that Tinsley’s report noted the “wide latitude” the agency has in deciding which pollution to use.

“The proposed rule would take us from no regulation to a mandatory 70 percent cut,” Bergman said. “The report improperly characterizes the process, which has been inclusive.”

The pending regulation envisions a 70 percent cut in mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants by 2018, from the current 48 tons a year to 15 tons.

Coal-fired plants
The EPA is expected to issue the rule by March 15 to comply with a court-approved agreement with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. The council agreed to that date to give the agency more time to do analysis and collect more public comments; so far, more than 500,000 have been submitted, mostly form letters.

Bergman and other EPA officials said Tinsley’s report fails to consider that mercury pollution is a global problem and that most Americans are exposed to it by eating fish imported from abroad.

The environmental group sued EPA in 1992 to force the agency to regulate hazardous air pollutants from power plants. The Clinton administration in late 2000 directed EPA to regulate mercury as a toxic, hazardous substance and require “maximum achievable control technology” at hundreds of coal-fired power plants.

Since the late 1990s, the EPA had regulated mercury dumped in water and air from municipal waste and medical waste incinerators, but not from power plants.

Utilities could meet the EPA’s target by switching to cleaner-burning coal or natural gas, or installing equipment to cut smog and acid rain.

The agency’s favored approach is an industry-supported program that would let plants sell unused pollution rights to companies that overshoot their allowances. Under a pollution-trading system, plants unable to meet the required reductions could buy emission allowances from other plants that have exceeded the required cuts.

The full report is online at