The next government target: mercury

The EPA proposes a 'cap-and-trade' approach to reducing emission levels in air. Critics say it's a step backward.

In his first speech as the recently confirmed head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Mike Leavitt said the Bush administration's plan for cleaning up air pollution would result in "the most productive period of air-quality improvement in American history."

That was two weeks ago, and this week Mr. Leavitt proposed new regulations and standards he said would "bring Americans the most rapid and significant air-quality improvement in a decade."

The rhetoric is forceful, but is it likely to be borne out in fact?

Someone else will be president before that question can be answered, so it's not surprising that there's a sharp difference of opinion right now - particularly given the administration's controversial record in other areas of environmental protection.

The focus this week is on reducing three forms of pollution: mercury, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxide resulting mainly from power generation. Unlike his predecessor's tendency to rely on strict government regulation of such substances, George W. Bush wants to set mandatory industrywide standards, and then let the marketplace decide who takes the lead in cleaning up the air.

It's called "cap-and-trade," and it's the basis of the Bush administration's "Clear Skies" legislative proposal to reduce pollution. Or as President Bush told a White House gathering in September, "Instead of government telling utilities where and how to cut pollution, we will tell them how much to cut and when we expect progress to be made."

Most of the attention is focused on mercury, the substance deemed most dangerous to human health.

The Clinton vision

The regulatory path begun by the Clinton administration would have reduced mercury emissions (now 48 tons a year) some 70 to 90 percent by 2008. This would have required coal-burning power plants (the largest human-generated source of mercury emissions) to install what the EPA calls "maximum achievable control technologies."

The Bush administration plan pushes substantial mercury reductions back a decade by rolling it into less stringent EPA requirements and instituting cap-and-trade measures. One reason: It costs less for energy companies and consumers. Still, the proposal to reduce mercury emissions nationwide, as well as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide (which form smog and fine particles) in 30 eastern states, could cost the industry $5 billion or more to implement.

Critics say cap-and-trade may be fine for less toxic pollutants. Since its inception in 1990, such a plan has helped curb acid rain, for example.

But mercury can be far more harmful, potentially causing neurological and developmental damage to humans - especially infants. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 8 percent of American women of childbearing age have unsafe levels of mercury in their blood, putting more than 300,000 children at risk each year. Last week, a scientific advisory panel told the federal Food and Drug Administration that it needs to give clearer advice to pregnant women and young children on the risks of mercury in food - especially some tuna fish products.

Mercury "bioaccumulates" in the environment, becoming more concentrated as it moves up the food chain. Forty-three states have issued warnings about eating fish with high concentrations of mercury. New research by academic scientists, announced this week, adds to the concern, showing "severe" impact to fish from mercury.

"For example, in our new research in New Hampshire we estimate that fish in 54 percent of lakes in the state violate the most stringent EPA standard for mercury," says Charles Driscoll, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Syracuse University in New York. "This is a significant impact."

The problem with cap-and-trade, environmentalists say, is that it can create "hot spots" of dangerous pollutants (including mercury) near plants that have purchased "credits" to avoid lowering their emissions from plants that do better than federal standards - the basic way cap-and-trade works.

Politically speaking

The political context of the issue is as murky as the Los Angeles basin on a bad-air day. The US Supreme Court this week agreed to hear a case in which consumer and environmental groups are trying to find out whom Vice President Dick Cheney talked with in putting together the administration's energy plan.

The groups charge that Mr. Cheney mainly listened to industry officials - campaign contributors among them - who stand to benefit from less-stringent standards. The White House says forcing Cheney to reveal details of his energy task force intrudes on the executive branch.

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