Mercurial policy

January 04, 2004

WHEN IT COMES to cataloging the threat from mercury, household thermometers rank higher on the official menace list than coal-fired power plants.

The sale of mercury thermometers has been banned in 11 states, including Maryland, for fear they might break and release the toxic, silvery chemical into the air, potentially causing brain damage to any who inhale it -- particularly children. Most pharmacies in the country don't sell mercury thermometers anymore even where they aren't banned.

In a further precaution, many local governments run thermometer exchanges, where the old mercury models can be traded in for the more modern, and presumably safer, digital variety.

But the 48 tons of mercury that speweach year from coal-fired utilities -- which not only pollute the air but wash into the waterways and enter the food chain through fish --fail to inspire such urgency.

The Bush administration decided to slow down the timetable for requiring power plants to install pollution controls aimed specifically at mercury. As a result, a targeted 90 percent reduction in mercury emissions, which the Clinton administration estimated could be reached by 2008, would be replaced by a reduction target of 70 percent with a deadline of 2018.

What's more, the Environmental Protection Agency under Mr. Bush's direction proposed to downgrade the classification of mercury from "hazardous air pollutant" to a less stringent category so it can be part of a program that allows companies to buy pollution "credits" from cleaner plants.

Of course, the difference in approach between thermometers and power plants isn't hard to figure out. Most of the mercury thermometers are made these days in China and India. They don't have a big lobby here.

Utilities, meanwhile, have repeatedly been awarded special consideration by the Bush administration, which is being sued by Maryland and most of the other states in the Northeastern U.S. for relaxing other Clean Air Act requirements on those plants.

The Bush administration correctly claims its new mercury requirements would be the first ever applied to power plants nationwide. But they are not as strong as current technology would allow. They fail to match even a moderate, bipartisan compromise sponsored by Delaware Democratic Sen. Tom Carper and New Hampshire Republican Sen. Judd Gregg, among others, that calls for an 80 percent reduction in mercury emissions within 10 years.

If mercury is so dangerous that pregnant women are urged not to eat much fish, then it's time to get at least as tough on polluters as we are on foreign thermometers.

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