Pombo says: Eat up!

House Resources Committee Chair Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) — longtime bete noire of the environmental community — cooked up what appears to be some fishy science in a report released last week titled “Mercury in Perspective: Fact and Fiction About the Debate Over Mercury” [PDF].

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The report — written not by scientists but rather by aides to Pombo and another member of his committee, Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.) — aims to downplay the overwhelming evidence that mercury from coal-burning power plants poses a significant health risk to Americans. Two of the report’s claims are particularly stunning, as science journalist Chris C. Mooney points out. One: “There has been no credible evidence of harm to pregnant women or their unborn children from regular consumption of fish.” And two: “Current, peer-reviewed scientific literature does not show any link between U.S. power-plant emissions and mercury in fish.”

The report ignores reams of data indicating that mercury disrupts fetal development and can cause learning and memory disabilities in children, as well as recent research linking mercury exposure to increased risk of cardiac problems in adults. And it gives short shrift to the well-established fact that coal-burning power plants are the major industrial source of mercury pollution in the U.S.

The national controversy over mercury pollution, having simmered for more than a year, will finally come to a boil on March 15, when the Bush EPA is legally required to finalize its rule determining how rigorously the toxic pollutant will be regulated. The first draft of the rule, published in January 2004, was roundly criticized by dozens of members of Congress, public-health advocates, and environmental groups for being notably weaker than a rule proposed during the Clinton administration.

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The Clinton-era proposal would have required mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants to be aggressively reduced using the best technology available on the market — or, as the wonks put it, maximum achievable control technology (MACT) — which would slash emissions by as much as 90 percent within a year, starting in 2008. In contrast, the Bush administration’s draft rule proposes a cap-and-trade program requiring smaller and slower reductions of 70 percent from 2005 levels by 2018. And critics argue that these results would not be fully achieved until 2025, due to the nature of the market-based trading system.

Richard Pombo.

The Pombo-Gibbons report argues in favor of the Bush administration’s mercury-reduction plan, just in time to feed the heated tussle expected to break out in coming weeks as the final rule is released. “The report is essentially a preemptive strike,” said John Walke, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, the environmental group that sued the EPA over delays on its mercury rule and forced it to comply with a March 15 deadline.

According to Walke, the report repeatedly references data from industry-funded groups such as the Edison Electric Institute and the Electric Power Research Institute, the latter a “quasi-scientific body that has repackaged the basic talking points that the utility industry has been relying on for years,” he said. Walke accuses congressional Republicans of trying to drum up “wildly off-base claims about mercury just to make EPA’s abominable rule look good by comparison.”

But Pombo counters that it’s the environmentalists who are wildly off-base. “[I]t is clear that some special-interest groups are crying wolf,” he said last week in a public statement. Matt Streit, a spokesperson for the House Resources Committee, echoed this sentiment: “Any single green group you can name has something to say on mercury, and probably it’s half truth and half misinformation. The risk has been overplayed by environmentalists.”

The report itself slams greens: “As a result of the well-funded effort to push their political agenda, environmentalists have caused American citizens to become unnecessarily concerned about possible adverse health effects from exposure to trace amounts of mercury,” it reads.

Of course, environmental groups are hardly alone in declaring mercury a public-health danger. The National Academy of Sciences and the EPA have warned of the risks of mercury exposure and determined that individuals should restrict their intake of fish and other seafood in order to limit exposure. And the Food and Drug Administration, along with at least 45 state agencies, have released health advisories warning of dangerous mercury contamination in fish.

Add to that the tri-partisan coalition of 45 senators which last April sent a letter to the EPA exhorting the agency to draft a stronger mercury plan, saying current proposals “fall far short of what the law requires and they fail to protect the health of our children and our environment. … We do not believe [they] are sufficient or defensible.”

Nevertheless, the Pombo-Gibbons report repeatedly criticizes the EPA’s current standards for safe levels of mercury in fish. “Scaring people away from consuming fish is creating a public health crisis in its own right,” it claims.

According to Streit, Americans “are on the bottom of the scale” of worldwide fish consumption. “We actually don’t consume enough fish as it is,” he said. When asked whether women of childbearing age should heed government advisories on fish consumption, Streit conceded, “Yes, but there are segments of the population that aren’t at risk, and even they are reducing their fish intake, despite the fact that it’s an important part of their diet. Like, I don’t have to worry about eating fish.”

Environmentalists argue that this attitude disregards evidence that mercury can impair the cardiovascular health of adult men and women. Moreover, they say, the report’s boosters are trotting out these fish-consumption worries as a red herring, when their real concern is a threat to the coal and power industries’ bottom lines.

As Gibbons said last week, “With a more restrictive, unnecessary regulation we could see a large portion of this country’s coal supplies become useless.” And the report itself argues, “Issuing an inflexible MACT rule without a commercially available and cost-effective technology that has been proven reliable is irresponsible and will force the premature closure of some coal-fired plants and/or encourage fuel switching. Either scenario exacerbates our existing energy problems.”

Environmentalists dismiss the argument that MACT technology is too expensive, saying that the economic benefits of curbing mercury emissions — which would come from reduced medical costs for those affected by exposure, higher demand for fish, and revitalized tourism at fishing destinations — would far outweigh the cost of using pollution-control technologies. Moreover, recent innovations have already reduced the cost of these technologies in response to newly implemented state-level mercury regulations.

According to a report [PDF] by the National Wildlife Federation, implementing the MACT rule would be affordable even without these innovations: “If you spread the cost of applying pollution controls out to average households it would be the equivalent of about a cup of coffee a month — ranging from less than a dollar to three dollars, depending on the utility,” said Olivia Campbell of NWF, who worked on the report.

These costs look trivial relative to the human health threat posed by the neurotoxin. Oh, and last we checked, the EPA was an agency designed to protect public health, not the well-being of King Coal.