On Sept. 13 the U.S. Senate narrowly rejected a bipartisan resolution offered by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) that would have maintained a firm timetable for the reduction in mercury emissions from power plants.

Senate Joint Resolution 20 would have rejected a recent Environmental Protection Administration ruling that delayed the reduction of such emissions. The vote was 47-51.

Environmental groups, while expressing disappointment at the vote, vowed to continue lobbying Congress to uphold environmental standards.

“We applaud the bipartisan group of 47 senators who voted to protect the health of women and children by rejecting the Bush EPA’s mercury pollution rule,” said Deb Callahan, president of the League of Conservation Voters. “These senators recognize that government’s most basic responsibility is to provide for the safety of its citizens, and that includes ensuring that the EPA develops meaningful clean air standards. They voted to put the health of 35 million Americans, including more than 3 million children, who live near a mercury-emitting power plant ahead of utility industry special interests.”

Despite the setback, Callahan said, “We will continue to work with pro-conservation members of Congress to stop corporate polluters from rewriting our environmental and public health laws.”

Some background

The Clean Air Act of 1970 is the primary federal law governing air quality in the United States. The 1990 amendments to the act established a process to begin cleaning up the toxic mercury spewing out of dirty power plants across the country. The amended act requires each plant to use “maximum achievable control technology” on every generating unit. Anything less stringent means more pollution and more long-term health problems.

However, Michael Leavitt, the “market-based solutions” advocate appointed by President George W. Bush as administrator of the EPA, came up with a new rule, dubbed “Clear Skies,” which removes power plants from the list of hazardous air pollutant sources under the Clean Air Act. The new rule treats mercury pollution from power plants as “non-hazardous” even though mercury is one of the most dangerous air pollutants. The new rule is contrary to the intention of the Clean Air Act. It was the new rule that led to Senate Joint Resolution 20.

Why is mercury a problem?

Mercury emissions from fossil-fuel- fired power plants rain down on lakes, streams and the ocean, where it gets into the food chain. At least 44 states have issued warnings to avoid or limit consumption of mercury-laden fish. Because concentrations of the toxic metal accumulate up the food chain, the species of primary concern are bigger fish, like albacore (white tuna), shark, king mackerel, tilefish and swordfish. Mercury contamination is also a serious problem in freshwater fish, including many species prized by sport fishermen. State health agencies across the country have warned people against eating these fish. Many indigenous people and Asian immigrants eat more fish than the rest of the population, which puts them at higher risk.

According to the EPA’s own figures, one in six pregnant women has dangerous levels of mercury in her blood. The National Academy of Sciences says that maternal consumption of unsafe levels of mercury in fish can impact fetal development and cause learning disabilities, poor motor function, mental retardation, seizures, cerebral palsy and other problems in children.

The sides are

staked out clearly

On the right is a group of energy corporations who own coal- and oil-fired power plants. They will probably save billions as a result of this vote. The new rule has polluting corporations’ fingerprints all over it. It contains wording lifted directly from memoranda provided by utility corporation lobbyists. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) says that the Bush administration “downplayed scientific evidence of the dangers of mercury and even let corporate energy lobbyists write parts of the new rule.”

The Bush administration’s arrogance doesn’t stop there. The EPA’s inspector general as well as the General Accountability Office (GAO) issued recommendations that were ignored, along with more than 680,000 public comments — a record for any EPA rule. Ignored as well were the comments of many state environment departments and attorneys general, doctors, educators, sportsmen’s groups and the EPA’s own advisory committees. And, although it should not come as a surprise after four years working with this administration, the comments of 45 Senate and 184 House members were also ignored.

Well-heeled defenders

of industry

The most important and most difficult sources to regulate are coal- and oil-fired electric power plants. Strong, well-funded corporate opposition has produced numerous delays and generated extra obstacles for regulating these plants. One example is a fake “grassroots” organization calling itself the “Coalition for Affordable and Reliable Energy (CARE),” which has used subterfuge and has played the “jobs or environment” card in the hopes of driving a wedge between labor and environmentalists.

In a recent press release, CARE asks Americans to “Please oppose Senate Joint Resolution 20, sponsored by Senators Leahy and Collins. This resolution would override the new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Clean Air Mercury Rule (CAMR). CAMR is an effective cap-and-trade system for reducing mercury emissions from power plants. SJR 20 is intended to instead force a plant-by-plant approach requiring the use of ‘maximum achievable control technology’ (MACT).”

“If MACT requirements are imposed, it would increase electricity costs by 20 percent and further threaten U.S. chemical and manufacturing jobs. Substantially higher electricity costs would be passed onto customers, including fixed-income and senior citizens, who are already suffering from skyrocketing energy and fuel costs.”

Where does CARE get


First, MACT is part of the original Clean Air Act that Bush’s “Clear Skies” initiative would over-rule. The new “Clear Skies” rule is a corporate effort to weasel out of compliance.

Secondly, CARE’s cost estimates for MACT are way out of line. A National Wildlife Foundation study in five states that rely heavily on coal power found that a mercury rule requiring 90 percent emissions reduction would only cost residential customers between 69 cents and about $2 per month. Available technologies and techniques in use today achieve up to 90 percent mercury air emissions reductions over uncontrolled levels, and do so cost-effectively (on the order of 1/50th of a penny per kilowatt hour).

Third, there’s the issue of “cap-and-trade” concepts that allow companies to buy and sell “emission allowances” for mercury.

Pro-capitalist economists favor this approach because it theoretically allows market forces to fix environmental problems. In a cap-and-trade system, the government sets the total amount of a pollutant that can be put into the environment by an entire industry. The government establishes emission allowances, which can be traded among companies in the industry.

Companies that can easily add pollution controls and reduce their pollution can then sell pollution credits to companies that have more difficulty implementing modern pollution controls, or they can “bank” the credits to apply toward emissions in future years. In essence, some companies spend money for the right to continue polluting at higher levels. That’s bad for us, but it’s cheaper for the corporations than modernizing.

Cap-and-trade systems might make sense for emissions that have a global impact but little or no local impact. Carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, is better suited to a cap-and-trade system because there is no direct effect of local carbon dioxide emissions on the inhabitants of any nearby city, county or region — the problem is only important from a global perspective.

The negative consequences of mercury emissions occur more locally. This makes mercury a bad candidate for a cap-and-trade system. “Hot spots” would be created, where some people would continue to suffer the chronic effects of this potent pollutant.

The best approach for mercury is to hold each source of mercury emissions to a set limit, using the most appropriate available, maximum achievable control technology (MACT).

At this point in capitalism, marked by an overall declining rate of profit, corporations are compelled to increase their profit margins by any means necessary. One major method is to externalize as much of their costs to the “commons” as possible. That means using our air and water as their dump sites, instead of cleaning up their act to levels that will assure a healthy environment and healthy people. This new mercury rule is a great example of what happens when corporate greed trumps science.

“For all their talk of family values and the rights of the unborn, the Bush administration has yet again put the value of corporate campaign contributors — not families and the unborn — first,” said Sen. Leahy.

“It is not a family value to tell a whole generation of women that their health is not important,” he continued. “It is not a family value to put another generation of young kids at risk of learning disabilities. These mercury rules do just that. It is time to put people first, and to stop letting the big polluters and the special interests write the rules and run the show over at EPA.”

Dave Zink (zacd1@juno.com) is a trade union and environmental activist in the state of Washington.