EPA to review proposal on mercury

Senators allege industry unduly influenced plan

May 13, 2004|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - Responding to what some senators call "apparent serious irregularities," the Environmental Protection Agency's inspector general will review how the EPA developed a proposal to control mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Seven senators asked for the inquiry in a letter last month, saying there is reason to believe the process was unduly influenced by the power industry. An inspector general's office spokeswoman confirmed the review yesterday and said its scope is under discussion.

"Any judgment on the rule or the process should be withheld until the rule is finalized," said EPA spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman. "We will be reducing mercury emissions from power plants for the first time, and we want to do it right."

In their letter, dated April 12, the senators said the EPA used questionable methods to develop its proposal, which includes "entire sections of text that appear to have been lifted verbatim" from industry memoranda.

It was edited in a way that makes the science on mercury's ill effects on health seem less certain, the senators said.

The letter was signed by six Democrats - Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, Barbara Boxer of California, Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, Thomas R. Carper of Delaware and Ron Wyden of Oregon - and James M. Jeffords, an independent from Vermont.

John Stanton, vice president of the National Environmental Trust, an advocacy group, said the inspector general's review amounts to "one more indictment of the Bush administration's approach" to mercury pollution.

Ingested in sufficient quantities, mercury - a byproduct of coal combustion - can harm the nervous system and cause learning disabilities, mental retardation and other problems. It is a particular threat to fetuses exposed through their mothers; the EPA estimates that 630,000 of the 4 million babies born each year could be at risk for some type of mercury-related developmental disorder.

Public-health advocates have said for months that the EPA is feeling pressure to undercut tough control measures spelled out in the Clean Air Act.

Under the act, power plants - including large ones in Texas - would have to reduce mercury emissions by up to 90 percent by the end of 2008. Under the EPA proposal, backed by President Bush, emissions reductions would be smaller and take place over a longer period.

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