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March 25, 2005

THE BUSH administration is getting quite a workout patting itself on the back for being the first in this country or the world to regulate mercury emissions from power plants.

And that is a distinction of which to be proud. Mercury is nasty stuff, a toxic metal that finds its way into the food chain and causes damage to the brain and nervous system, posing a particular threat for pregnant women and their fetuses.

There's nothing to brag about, though, in the weakness of the new regulations and the doublespeak of science and diplomacy used to produce them. In fact, as with many aspects of this administration's approach to environmental protection, Americans and the rest of the world would be safer without it.

New power plant rules issued last week call for a cap-and-trade system that sets overall targets for reduction of mercury admissions. Some plants are allowed to exceed the limits if others register below. Simply enforcing existing Clean Air Act requirements on utilities would result in a quicker drop in mercury emissions. But the administration argued the cost of such controls far outweighed the potential health benefits.

Further, officials said, pollution controls here can't protect Americans from mercury contamination in the 80 percent of the fish they consume because it's caught in foreign waters. Instead, they simply warn women and young children to avoid it.

But the administration disregarded some inconvenient research findings that would have justified the cost of tighter pollution controls on power plants. And administration officials lobbied last month against a European effort to craft a global treaty on mercury reductions.

What's more, the administration has refused to crack down on nine outdated chlorine factories, including one in nearby Delaware, that represent some of the nation's greatest sources of mercury emissions. Delaware City's Occidental Chemical plant is responsible for 75 percent of the mercury released into the air in that state. No doubt some finds its way into Maryland as well.

President Bush doesn't like regulations, doesn't like treaties and doesn't like scientific research that contradicts his views.

The result could be a record crop of brain-damaged babies. Already, 630,000 children nationwide are discovered each year to have unsafe levels of mercury in their blood.

That's not a category in which any nation would want to come in first.

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