Tuesday, April 6, 2004

Mercury Rising

Paul Krugman on the latest Bush administration’s attempt to re-write science and suck up to their corporate cronies.

During the 1990’s, government regulation greatly reduced mercury emissions from medical and municipal waste incineration, leaving power plants as the main problem. In 2000, the E.P.A. determined that mercury is a hazardous substance as defined by the Clean Air Act, which requires that such substances be strictly controlled. E.P.A. staff estimated that enforcing this requirement would lead to a 90 percent reduction in power-plant mercury emissions by 2008.

A few months ago, however, the Bush administration reversed this determination and proposed a “cap and trade” system for mercury that it claimed would lead to a 70 percent reduction by 2018. Other estimates suggest that the reduction would be smaller, and take longer.

For some pollutants, setting a cap on total emissions, while letting polluters buy and sell emission rights, is a cost-efficient way to reduce pollution. The cap-and-trade system for sulfur dioxide, which causes acid rain, has been a big success. But the science clearly shows that cap-and-trade is inappropriate for mercury.

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So how did the original plan get replaced with a plan so obviously wrong on the science?

The answer is that the foxes have been put in charge of the henhouse. The head of the E.P.A.’s Office of Air and Radiation, like most key environmental appointees in the Bush administration, previously made his living representing polluting industries (which, in case you haven’t guessed, are huge Republican donors). On mercury, the administration didn’t just take industry views into account, it literally let the polluters write the regulations: much of the language of the administration’s proposal came directly from lobbyists’ memos.

Next week, they’re going to hire the lead industry re-write the lead control levels; after all, they know how to turn that stuff into gold.