The toxic effects of mercury on humans and other animals are well-documented and have been for decades. The chief effect is to impair neurological development, and one of the more frightening aspects of mercury pollution is how widespread it has become.
Yet it wasn't until this past week that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed new rules for power plants to reduce the spread of mercury and other toxic emissions, calling for a 91 percent cut over the next five years. That it has taken this long to address such a serious threat to human health is a sad case study of how the federal regulatory process doesn't work.
Even coal-fired power plant operators can't say they weren't aware of the hazards contained in their smoke. The EPA began developing standards for mercury during the Clinton administration, but that process was sidetracked during the Bush years and was the subject of extended litigation.
Frustrated by federal inaction, states have also jumped into the fray. The Maryland General Assembly adopted statewide restrictions on mercury emissions from power plants as part of the Maryland Healthy Air Act five years ago, but it required rallying veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate to stand up to then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
About one-third of states have passed similar laws, but such a piecemeal approach has limited benefits. Maryland's air quality is as much a product of what floats in from neighboring states, particularly from coal-fired plants in the Midwest, as what happens here.
The power industry fought the restrictions tooth and nail, arguing that the science wasn't sound (a familiar tactic of polluters these days) and that installing pollution controls would prove costly to consumers and the U.S. economy.
But while the EPA estimates that those measures may cost the industry $10 billion a year, that price tag pales when compared to the potential savings in reduced medical expenses and other health-related benefits of about $100 billion annually.
Those savings include about 17,000 fewer premature deaths and 11,000 fewer heart attacks per year when the reductions are fully in place. To ponder all the suffering that Americans might have been spared had these restrictions been imposed 11 years earlier when the current rulemaking process began is enough to make a person weep.
Naturally, Washington seems destined to make this same mistake all over again as Republicans in Congress look for ways to sabotage the EPA's current efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Once again, the science on the subject is painfully clear, but opponents and their elected enablers seem bound and determined to thwart the regulatory process.
Perhaps the new rules on mercury, lead and other emissions will spur greater investment in cleaner energy that will also reduce the pace of climate change, one of the most serious environmental threats facing humanity. But history suggests it will not happen easily, no matter the cost — measured in dollars and lives — to ordinary Americans.