With feds slow to tackle mercury pollution, state leaders step up
The Mercury Mutiny is gaining force on the state level, galvanizing some unlikely rebels. Eastern states including Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and New York were the first to jump into the fray, launching local efforts to reduce mercury pollution in response to the Bush administration’s widely criticized plan for dealing with mercury. Then last week, a new regional effort was announced by a coalition of state legislators from six Midwestern states — Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin — many of which have economies reliant on King Coal, a major culprit in mercury emissions.
Photo: Los Alamos National Lab.
“You might expect this kind of action from Northeastern states, but now even Midwestern states are mobilizing,” said Jane Krentz, a former state senator from Minnesota and the Midwest coordinator of the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators, the group that organized this regional initiative. “We can’t ignore the science any longer. The federal government’s rollback on mercury is very disturbing — it will set us back decades — so we’ve got no choice but to take things into our own hands.” The state senators and representatives plan to introduce bills in their legislatures that would curb mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants.
Adam Schafer, program director for NCEL, admitted that it will be difficult to get the legislation passed considering the power of the coal industry in the Midwest, “but we hope that working together as a coalition, we’ll have more leverage to fight that battle,” he said. “More importantly, we’re sending a message to Washington, letting the EPA know that we can see the writing on the wall: Mercury threatens the brains of babies. If Washington isn’t going to act to protect our constituencies, we won’t sit back and let that risk escalate.”
Indeed, the writing on the wall got even bolder a couple of weeks ago when the EPA’s top mercury scientist, Kathryn Mahaffey, released new findings indicating that 630,000 babies born in the U.S. each year, one in six, are at risk of mercury-related developmental problems contracted in the womb — a number nearly twice as high as the EPA’s current official estimate. Mahaffey’s new calculations are based on the finding that mercury concentrates at higher levels in the umbilical cords of pregnant women than in their bloodstreams, indicating that fetuses could be getting higher doses of mercury than previously thought.
Mahaffey’s findings are unlikely to sway the administration from its current controversial cap-and-trade program for mercury pollution, which has been derided as too weak by environmentalists and public-health advocates. And hers is not the only mercury-related science that the Bush administration doesn’t seem to want to consider.
In late January, Inside EPA reporter Liz Heron obtained EPA documents through the Freedom of Information Act revealing that the agency failed to comply with two executive orders requiring it to study how the administration’s mercury plan would affect children, minorities, and low-income populations.
“What they said to me was that they were trying to protect the entire population, so it wasn’t necessary to look at the effects on specific population subsets,” said Heron. “Their logic is that if their end goal will benefit everybody, it will help susceptible populations as well.”
But environmentalists argue that such studies of potential effects on vulnerable populations are particularly important in the case of mercury pollution, which, as Mahaffey made clear, has disproportionate impacts on children, and is widely thought to create toxic “hot spots” in the mostly low-income communities immediately surrounding power plants. Bush’s cap-and-trade program — which would let utilities buy and sell the right to emit mercury — could exacerbate the hot-spot problem in particular. “The larger point here,” said Heron, “is that the Bush administration is shifting away from the emphasis on environmental justice that was prevalent in the ’90s.”