WSJ gave Bush far too much credit for regulating mercury

The Wall Street Journal falsely claimed in a March 18 editorial that a new rule issued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) capping mercury emissions from power plants marked “the first time any Administration has thought to regulate mercury, in any fashion.” The Journal also falsely accused environmentalists of hypocrisy for objecting to the rule because “there was no similar environmentalist outcry when previous Administrations (see Clinton) did nothing about the problem.”

In fact, not only did the EPA under President Clinton regulate mercury emissions from a variety of sources, but the recently issued Bush mercury rule represents a rollback of the tougher provisions set in motion by the Clinton EPA in 2000. Moreover, environmentalists did aggressively challenge what they considered insufficient action against mercury emissions from power plants during the Clinton administration.

Under Clinton, the EPA issued regulations reducing allowable mercury emissions from municipal waste combustors in 1995, medical waste incinerators in 1997, and hazardous waste combustors in 1999, estimating that the combined effect of these regulations would reduce mercury emissions by 80 percent.

On December 14, 2000, the EPA designated mercury an air toxin, requiring that the agency begin the process of setting standards for emissions from power plants based on “maximum achievable control technology,” a stringent standard that would have reduced mercury emissions to five tons within five years of implementation, according to a 2001 presentation from current EPA air chief Jeffrey Holmstead, as noted in a March 16 Knight Ridder report. By comparison, under the new rules, mercury emissions are projected to drop to 15 tons by 2018. The Clinton decision required the EPA to issue final regulations limiting mercury emissions from power plants by December 2004.

Moreover, contrary to the Journal's claim that environmentalists did not criticize Clinton for what they view as inadequate efforts to regulate mercury from power plants, the EPA's 2000 designation was the result of a 1994 lawsuit by the National Resources Defense Council, which aimed to force the EPA to take action against mercury from power plants. A December 14, 2000, press release titled “NRDC Applauds EPA for Acknowledging Mercury Air Pollution Threat” explained: “The agency's announcement resulted from a settlement of an NRDC lawsuit over hazardous power plant pollution (Natural Resources Defense Council v. Environmental Protection Agency, et al., No. 92-1415 (D.C. Circuit)).”

Clinton's EPA might have begun the process of regulating mercury from power plants even sooner following the lawsuit, but in 1998, Congress forbade the EPA from regulating power plant mercury until the completion of an independent study by the National Academies of Science. In July 2000, NAS completed its study, which concluded that the EPA's determination of the acceptable level of mercury to which humans should be exposed was "scientifically justifiable," paving the way for the rulemaking to move forward, as the Associated Press reported.

Bush's March 15 mercury rule revokes the Clinton EPA's designation of mercury as an air toxin, allowing far less stringent emissions standards. The Bush EPA rule reduces mercury emissions from the current level of 48 tons per year to 38 tons by 2010 and to 15 tons by 2018. According to EPA's Holmstead, in the March 16 Knight Ridder report, the rule “would not require power plants to adopt any new pollution control technology. ... the reductions mandated for 2010 were set at a level low enough so that additional pollution control equipment would not be needed.” Sid Nelson Jr., president of the pollution control company Sorbent Technologies Corp. of Ohio told Knight Ridder, the rule “sets out a plan where no power plant in the country will have to do anything special.” Nelson also noted that facilities “will not have to go out of their way to get one ounce of mercury out (of power plants) until 2020.”

Under the Clinton designation, all U.S. power plants would have been required to reduce their emissions of all toxic air pollutants -- including mercury -- to that of the best-performing 12 percent of the nation's facilities, as The Charlestown Gazette (West Virginia) reported on March 17. The Bush reversal of this designation allows power plants to evade these standards by capping overall emissions rather than limiting emissions from each plant. Instead the regulations allow for “a market-based 'cap-and-trade' program favored by the utility industry that will cut emissions at some but not all coal-fired power plants,” as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. noted. This program allows plants to trade pollution “credits” with other facilities.

The recently issued rule is less stringent even than previous Bush EPA plans, as the Chicago Tribune noted in a March 16 report:

Two years ago, EPA officials had been on track to require each power plant to reduce mercury emissions by as much as 90 percent by 2008. Under pressure from power companies and the coal industry, the administration scrapped that idea in favor of a trading system in which some plants cut emissions while others keep polluting as long as overall mercury levels decline.

Now the agency's goal is to cut mercury pollution from power plants to 15 tons by 2018 -- a 70 percent reduction from current levels. But the EPA's own analysts estimate it could take even longer to reach that target.

Some within the EPA have criticized the Bush rule as weak. As the Tribune reported, the Children's Health Protection Advisory Committee of the EPA wrote to top agency officials that the new rule “does not sufficiently protect our nation's children.”

Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is seeking to have the new mercury rule overturned on the grounds that “it violates the Clean Air Act, fails to adequately protect public health and will hurt the state's coal industry,” according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The Post-Gazette further reported that DEP Secretary Kathleen McGinty called the EPA's recent action a “dangerous approach” and Kurt Knaus, a DEP spokesman, “said the new federal rule rescinds a December 2000 EPA finding that mercury emissions are a hazardous pollutant that must be controlled using maximum available controls, not a cap and trade program that could create local 'hot spots' of contamination.”