The Capitol is heating up over mercury.

Photo: NIH.

A handful of Beltway wags are contending that mercury is the new arsenic, the latest symbol of official disregard for environmental health. Their claim is lent credence by an ongoing flurry of controversies surrounding the Bush administration’s plan for dealing with the toxic pollutant.

A revealing article published in the Los Angeles Times two weeks ago intensified the commotion. According to reporters Tom Hamburger and Alan C. Miller, five career U.S. EPA employees charge that President Bush‘s political appointees railroaded the administration’s much-criticized mercury plan through by neglecting technical studies and ignoring the advice of a federal advisory panel. The plan would regulate mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants, but critics say it’s far too lax and would take far too long to achieve significant results.

More embarrassing to the Bushies was the article’s revelation that the EPA lifted some of the proposal’s language directly out of lobbyist memos from the law firm Latham and Watkins (the former employer of the EPA’s assistant administrator for air and radiation, Jeffrey Holmstead) and from the advocacy group West Associates, both of which represent large utility companies.

Galled by the L.A. Times report, Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) sent a letter to EPA Administrator Michael Leavitt demanding that he call on the agency’s inspector general to investigate allegations of undue industry influence in the “poisoned process” of rulemaking, and that he reassess the “gross inadequacies in controlling mercury to … levels necessary to protect the public’s health.”

The EPA responded with its usual insouciance: Leavitt admitted in a public statement that “it does not seem to be the normal course of business” to incorporate outside information into an EPA proposal without noting the source, but he made no move to launch an investigation, insisting that the mercury proposal was a work in progress and that he was continually asking for further analysis.

“Why investigate a process that is not finished?” EPA spokesperson Cynthia Bergman asked Muckraker.

But that’s not good enough for Jeffords, nor for nearly 40 of his Senate colleagues from both sides of the aisle. This Thursday, those senators — led by Jeffords, Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and Mark Dayton (D-Minn.) — plan to submit another letter to Leavitt demanding that he withdraw the mercury proposal.

The letter has been in development for several months, according to Susanne Fleek, environmental policy advisor to Leahy. Fleek and other staffers in Leahy’s office have been quietly investigating many of the allegations in the L.A. Times article. With the help of research conducted by Martha Keating, an environmental scientist for the nonprofit Clean Air Task Force, they found some 20 instances in which language was lifted more or less verbatim from the Latham and Watkins and West Associates memos.

Keating originally discovered cribbed language back in December, as reported in a Washington Post article by Eric Pianin in late January. “I’m looking at the proposal and thinking, wait a minute, I’ve read this research before,” Keating told Muckraker. “And then I [cross-referenced] and realized, wow, this really is plagiarized.”

The duplicated language relates to technical research about how coal-fired power plants, the worst culprits in mercury pollution, function and operate; more damning, borrowed sections also give a rationale for lax emissions limits.

“Letting industry lobbyists write so much of the mercury plan is bad enough,” Leahy told Muckraker, “but even worse is the Bush administration’s refusal to treat mercury as the toxic pollutant that it is. That’s the primal failure from which all else follows. The Bush proposal on mercury is one of the worst examples I have ever seen in this administration’s long pattern of catering to industry interests at the expense of the public interest. No wonder we are finding so much bipartisan support in fighting it.”

The issue certainly is hot, agrees Chris Miller, a staffer at the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “Mercury is rising in the Beltway — just like arsenic did,” he said. “The evidence of its health hazards is escalating while the Bush administration continues to defend its defenseless policies, and public outrage is increasing in volume.”

Those health hazards are becoming a point of controversy too, in addition to disagreements over proposed regulations on power plants.

On March 19, the EPA and the Food and Drug Administration released a national health advisory that warned of high mercury levels in certain varieties of fish and recommended that kids and women of childbearing age eat no more than six ounces of albacore tuna a week to avoid possible adverse effects on children’s brain development.

Soon after the warning was released, Vas Aposhian, a professor at the University of Arizona and a member of a federal advisory panel on fish-consumption guidelines, criticized the government warning as too lenient. Aposhian alleged that mercury levels in albacore are so dangerous that the fish should be avoided altogether, and told his local paper, the Arizona Daily Star, that the panel he served on had been stacked with people sympathetic to the food industry.

Meanwhile, the administration argues that there’s no conclusive evidence of a connection between fish contamination and mercury emissions from power plants — though a number of scientists disagree.

“EPA officials have been dishing out their usual baloney about how there’s not enough science to show a definite link between coal-plant emissions and mercury in fish,” said a staffer at the Senate Environment Committee who asked to remain anonymous.

The staffer told Muckraker that a group of scientists “in the bowels of the EPA” have developed a scientific model showing just such a direct link. The model is in the last stages of peer review but, said the staffer, the scientists are concerned that it’s not going to see the light of day.