29 Mar 2004 Clinton’s EPA Chief Springs the Mercury Trap She Left for Bush
BACKGROUND: MoveOn.org, the Environmental Working Group Action Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council have announced what MoveOn.org terms a “hard hitting TV ad campaign” against “the President’s proposed ten-year mercury cleanup delay.”1
Carol Browner, who ran the EPA during the Clinton Administration, is participating in the project.
TEN SECOND RESPONSE: Although she served as President Clinton’s EPA chief for eight years, Carol Browner never imposed a crackdown on power-plant mercury emissions. But between Bush’s election and inauguration, she proposed an expensive, technically infeasible mercury plan — for her successor. It was an effort to trap Bush by giving him the choice of imposing a draconian policy — or face condemnation by the left for supposedly being “weak” on the environment.
THIRTY SECOND RESPONSE: MoveOn.org is an anti-Bush organization, as its ad campaigns make clear. What it doesn’t make clear is that the Bush Administration has proposed a plan to cut power plant mercury emissions by 40 percent by 2010, and 70 percent by 2018.2 But a mercury crackdown doesn’t matter as much as people are being led to believe. Researchers recently failed to find any mercury-related health effects among regular consumers of swordfish, the most likely source of mercury exposure among Americans.
DISCUSSION: A short history of this issue: The EPA has never regulated mercury emissions from power plants.
In late 2003, the Bush Administration proposed a plan to cut mercury emissions from power plants by 40 percent by 2010, and 70 percent by 2018. It now is receiving public and interest group comments upon its proposal, with the intention of announcing a final regulation late in 2004.
The Bush plan uses a “cap and trade” mechanism. That is, overall U.S. mercury emissions from power plants would be capped. Individual power plant operators would be given a “pollution allotment.” They could not exceed their allotment unless they purchased a “pollution credit” from another power plant operation that had emitted less mercury than allowed.
The EPA says of its decision to use a cap and trade mechanism: “We do believe that a type of cap and trade approach will allow us to get greater reductions in mercury emissions at lower cost.”
By contrast, the Clinton-era EPA did not chose to impose a rule — neither “cap and trade” or the more inflexible “command and control” (i.e., the government dictates exactly what plants must do) regulations — on mercury emissions from power plants. What it did do was announce (in mid-December 2000, after George W. Bush had been elected), a draft proposal so draconian it would have been extremely expensive to the economy and, very possibly, scientifically/technically impossible to achieve.
Since the Clinton-Browner EPA proposed only a draft regulation and never a final rule, Clinton and Browner left office without regulating mercury emissions from power plants.
The Clinton-Browner EPA essentially created a political trap, apparently for the sole purpose of putting the then-incoming Bush Administration in a tight spot. On the one hand, it would have been hurtful to Americans had Bush adopted the proposal unchanged; on the other hand, if his Administration changed the Clinton-Browner draft, the left could charge — as it now is doing — that Bush was “rolling back” mercury regulations.
The Bush Administration chose to do the right thing policy-wise, but now is taking the political hit that is being administered now by Browner herself, MoveOn.org, the Environmental Working Group Action Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council and others.
It also is worth noting that a mercury crackdown doesn’t matter as much as people are being led to believe. For instance, Harvard researchers recently failed to find any mercury-related health effects among regular consumers of swordfish, the most likely source of mercury exposure among Americans.3
Among Seychelles Islanders in the Indian Ocean, who have little to eat except mercury-contaminated fish, the Rochester School of Medicine found no adverse mercury impacts among children.4 In fact, there’s only one case of fish causing mercury poisoning in the scientific literature: At Japan’s Minamata Bay, where tons of industrial mercury wastes were dumped into the water for more than 20 years. 46 people died and hundreds were sickened by this heavy, localized pollution.5 That sort of polluting is already illegal in the U.S. Americans’ exposure to mercury was radically cut after adoption of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972, popularly known as the Clean Water Act.
Other mercury emissions have been substantially cut through regulations on municipal, medical, and hazardous waste incinerators.
The EPA itself, during the Clinton Administration, said: “People who consume average amounts of a variety of commercially available fish as part of a balanced diet are not likely to consume harmful amounts of mercury.”6
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
MoveOn.Org press release, “Bush’s Next Arsenic? MoveOn.Org, Ex-EPA Chief Carol Browner and Experts to Oppose Mercury Cleanup Delay – MoveOn.Org to Unveil New Television and Print Ad Campaign,” March 23, 2004, available online at http://www.commondreams.org/news2004/0323-03.htm as of March 29, 2004.
EPA Press Release, “New Power Plant Rule to Achieve Largest Emission Reductions in a Decade,” December 4, 2003, available at http://yosemite.epa.gov/opa/admpress.nsf/b1ab9f485b098972852562e7004dc686/17302e197330932585256df200686549?OpenDocument as of March 29, 2004.
Amy Ridenour, “Justice is Due to the Accused: If Bush Genuinely is Bad on the Environment, Why Can’t the Left Critique Him Fairly?,” National Center for Public Policy Research Ten Second Response #031904, March 19, 2004 at http://www.nationalcenter.org/TSR031904.html.
Amy Ridenour, “Mercury Madness: First-Ever Mercury Limits Called “Gift to Polluters” by President Bush’s Political Opposition,” National Center for Public Policy Research Ten Second Response #120903, December 19, 2003 at http://www.nationalcenter.org/TSR120903.html.
Dr. Willie Soon and Robert Ferguson, “Science Review: EPA Mercury MACT Rulemaking Not Justified by Science,” Frontiers of Freedom Center for Science and Public Policy, December 2003 at http://ff.org/centers/csspp/pdf/CSPP-1203-PP.pdf.
Frontiers of Freedom Center for Science and Public Policy, “Analysis of Sierra Club’s Alarmist Claims about Health Impact of Mercury,” March 25, 2004 at http://ff.org/centers/csspp/pdf/sierra-03-25-04.pdf.
by Amy Ridenour
Contact the author at: 202-507-6398 or [email protected]
The National Center for Public Policy Research
20 F Street NW, Suite 700 Washington, D.C. 20001
(1) MoveOn.Org press release, “Bush’s Next Arsenic? MoveOn.Org, Ex-EPA Chief Carol Browner and Experts to Oppose Mercury Cleanup Delay – MoveOn.Org to Unveil New Television and Print Ad Campaign,” March 23, 2004, available online at http://www.commondreams.org/news2004/0323-03.htm as of March 29, 2004.
(2) EPA Press Release, “New Power Plant Rule to Achieve Largest Emission Reductions in a Decade,” December 4, 2003, available at http://yosemite.epa.gov/opa/admpress.nsf/b1ab9f485b098972852562e7004dc686/17302e197330932585256df200686549?OpenDocument as of March 29, 2004.
(3) Steven Milloy, “FDA Mercury Warning Based on Junk Science, Experts Say,” Environment News. Heartland Institute, February 1, 1998, available at http://www.heartland.org/Article.cfm?artId=14272 as of March 26, 2004.
(4) “Commercial Fish: Eat Up, Despite Low Levels of Mercury,” University of Rochester, August 26, 1998, available at http://www.rochester.edu/pr/releases/med/mercury.htm as of March 26, 2004.
(5) “Mercury in Medical Facilities: Minamata Disease,” Environmental Protection Agency website, downloaded March 26, 2004 from http://www.epa.gov/grtlakes/seahome/mercury/src/minamata.htm.
(6) “Mercury Emissions and Electric Utilities,” Environmental Protection Agency, February 24, 1998, available at http://www.epa.gov/ttncaaa1/t3/fact_sheets/hg17th.pdf as of March 26, 2004.