Editorial: Need strict mercury limits
Friday, February 22, 2008
The Bush administration and those who build coal-fired power plants suffered a set-back when a federal court ruled that more needed to be done to protect the public from mercury emissions.
The commendable ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia chastised the Environmental Protection Agency for violating the Clean Air Act in 2005 when it exempted coal plants from the strictest emission controls for mercury and other toxic substances.
It's a shame that it takes court rulings to force government regulators to comply with environmental protection laws.
This is not the first such court setback for Bush. Last year the Supreme Court ruled the EPA had not complied with the Clean Air Act when it failed to regulate greenhouse gases from automobiles.
Another court ruling found that the EPA must require utilities to install pollution controls when upgrading power plants. Of course, that's what the Clean Air Act said all along.
In the latest ruling, the court chided the Bush administration for using "the logic of the Queen of Hearts, substituting the EPA's desires for the plain text" of the law.
In reference to the upside-down world of author Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, the court ruled that the law clearly calls for protecting public health by reducing mercury emissions.
The EPA had been insisting that states adopt "cap-and-trade" programs that allow power plant operators to sell pollution credits to other plants that can continue unabated mercury emissions.
The administration's industry-friendly misreading of the law had the effect of creating "hot spots" of mercury releases that posed serious public health risks.
Under the Clean Air Act, in 1990 mercury was included among toxic pollutants to be controlled to the greatest possible extent. In 2005, the government was charged with controlling mercury emissions from power plants.
Mercury exposure can result in damage to the central nervous system and can be particularly toxic to infants and pregnant women.
The National Academy of Sciences estimates that 60,000 newborns each year could be at risk of learning disabilities due to mercury their mothers absorbed during pregnancy.
Government documents show the Bush administration pressured dozens of states to not adopt higher mercury emission standards but to accept the cap-and-trade scheme that would let some power plants evade cleaning up their mercury emissions.
With no way to buy mercury pollution credits, coal-fired power plants now must install mercury-reduction equipment.
With new and expanded coal-fired power plants to go on line in Texas, the state should adopt strict limits on mercury emissions.
It will be up to the next administration to write strict new emission rules for mercury and other toxic substances.
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