Obama administration seeks strong mercury regulation

This week the Environmental Protection Agency is holding public hearings on a new proposed rule that would require steep reductions in the emission of mercury, arsenic and other toxic air pollution from coal-fired power plants.

The hearings are a part of a mandated public comment period scheduled to end July 2.

According to the Center for American Progress, the rule would limit hazardous pollutants that enter the air and water supply through emissions from coal-fired power plants.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, one of the deadliest is mercury. According to that organization’s website, “Mercury is a neurotoxin that can cause brain damage and harm reproduction in women and wildlife; coal-fired power plants are the nation’s largest source of mercury air emissions, emitting about 48 tons annually.”

In 2000, the EPA under the Clinton administration determined that regulation of mercury and other toxins emitted from power plants was “appropriate and necessary.”

In 2002 and 2003, the Bush administration reversed this ruling by interfering with ongoing EPA studies of mercury pollution, begun by the Clinton administration. The Bush administration’s goal was to block EPA efforts to regulate the toxin.

In the wake of this interference, whistleblowers in the EPA said that administration loyalists and others suppressed reports on mercury because the Bush administration wanted to allow the industry to regulate itself and have few restrictions on mercury pollution.

According to the EPA staff, during the Bush years, White House loyalists eliminated information from public reports on the dangers of mercury when it adopted rules allowing dangerous levels of mercury emissions. Instead, language authored by the industry was allowed into the report in order to push the rule through.

Subsequent media investigations, an EPA Inspector General’s report and a Government Accountability Office study showed the Bush administration’s actions violated procedures on the rule and that scientific administration had been suppressed or distorted.

Still, in 2005, the controversial rule was adopted by the Bush-controlled EPA.

A subsequent federal court decision in 2008 found the rule had violated the Clean Air Act and the EPA was essentially ordered to rewrite its rules on mercury emissions.

This EPA rule is the result of the process.

An EPA fact sheet reveals the dangers of mercury emissions and the need for the new rule.

More than 500 power plants nationally emit harmful pollutants such as mercury and other poisons. Currently, medical waste incinerators and municipal waste combusts are regulated on mercury emissions and have eliminated some 95 percent of those pollutants using available technology.

Only power plants have been exempted.

Power plants emit half of all mercury pollution and acid gases. The new rule could eliminate as much as 91 percent of current mercury emissions.

Because mercury pollution definitely causes adverse health impacts, the elimination of this pollutant would prevent serious illness and premature deaths. The EPA believes as many as 17,000 premature deaths, 11,000 heart attacks, 120,000 asthma attacks, 12,2000 hospital and emergency room visits, 4,500 cases of chronic bronchitis, 850,000 sick days and between $59 billion and $140 billion in health care costs each year could be eliminated by regulating mercury emissions.

“When corporations choose not to remove as much mercury as is humanly possible from the exhausts of their power plants, they are damaging the environment, which in turns harms and poisons children and adults with needless amounts of mercury,” said Dr. Jerome Paulson, medical director of the Children’s National Medical Center, on a conference call with reporters this week.

Photo: Polluted waste water pool. Matthew High // CC 2.0


Joel Wendland-Liu
Joel Wendland-Liu

Joel Wendland-Liu teaches courses on diversity, intercultural competence, migration, and civil rights at Grand Valley State University in West Michigan. He is the author of "Mythologies: A Political Economy of U.S. Literature, Settler Colonialism, and Racial Capitalism in the Long Nineteenth Century" (International Publishers) and "The Collectivity of Life" (Lexington Books).