Mercury Debate Overshadows EPA Budget Hearing

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, February 10, 2005 (ENS) – The Bush administration would be wise to abandon its controversial plan to cut mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants, Senate Democrats said Wednesday.

The proposed regulation has "little credibility and moving forward with the rule would be foolish politically and scientifically," said Senator Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat.

The acting chief of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defended the plan to implement a mercury emissions trading plan and said the administration is not backing away from the proposal. Carper

Delaware Democrat Tom Carper has emerged as a vocal opponent of the Bush administration's air pollution policies, including its mercury proposal. (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)

"The point is that we are going to be regulating mercury from coal-fired power plants for the first time in history," EPA Acting Administrator Stephen Johnson told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. "We are taking steps to make that happen."

No one argues the proposal is the first official attempt by the federal government to curb these emissions, but critics say the administration plan is far too lax given the public health concerns from the toxic metal.

Democrats pointed to a report released last week by the EPA inspector general that found senior agency officials manipulated the development of the rule in order to favor industry.

The report concluded the agency's analysis supporting the implementation of a cap and trade scheme for mercury emissions was flawed, did not fully consider the rule's impact on children's health and should be revised.

New York Democrat Hillary Clinton called the findings of the report "shocking and absolutely outrageous."

"It is a slap in the face to Congress and a slap in the face to the American people," Clinton said. "We cannot permit government agencies to provide false and misleading information."

power

Westar Energy’s Jeffrey Energy Center, the largest coal-fired plant in Kansas, burned 10 million tons of coal in 2002. State-of-the-art emission-control systems help minimize the plant’s impact on the environment. (Photo courtesy Westar Energy)
Johnson echoed comments made by administration officials in their official response to the report and said the findings were "premature" because the rule is still being developed.

The agency will finalize the mercury rule - and a regulation to cut power plant emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide - next month, Johnson said, unless Congress passes legislation mirroring the Bush administration's "Clear Skies" plan.

"Our preferred approach is to see the passage of the Clear Skies legislation," Johnson told the committee, which plans to mark up the latest version of the bill next week.

Johnson appeared before the committee to testify on the administration's budget proposal for the EPA and received an earful from both sides of the aisle over proposed cuts to funding for water quality projects.

Johnson

Acting EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson defended the administration's EPA budget proposal as fair given current fiscal constraints. (Photo courtesy EPA)
The White House plan would cut some $500 million from the EPA budget - including $361 million from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which provides states low-interest loans to pay for sewage treatment plant upgrades.

Federal studies estimate needed upgrades and repairs to the nation's wastewater infrastructure total more than $300 billion over the next 20 years.

The cut would slash the federal government's contribution to the clean water fund some 46 percent over the past three years - a move lawmakers said is short-sighted given the scope of the need.

"The longer we put this off, the worse the problem gets," said Vermont Independent James Jeffords. "This dramatic reduction will unfairly shift the financial burden … to other levels of government."

Republicans noted that the administration proposed similar cuts last year, but Congress reinstated much of the funding.

"It seems every year - it happened in previous administrations - that there are cuts in programs you know in your heart are going to be put back in," said committee chair James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican. " I would prefer the agency start making cuts in other areas."

Johnson rejected criticism of the overall $7.57 billion spending plan and said it balances environmental protection with "the need to be a good steward of taxpayers' money."

He touted the allocation of $15 million to encourage development of cleaner diesel fuel and engines, as well as a $124 million increase for the Superfund program and $47 million boost for brownfields development.

Homeland security remains "a top priority" for the agency, Johnson said, pointing to a $79 million increase for the agency's homeland security efforts. The increase reflects a 73 percent rise over 2005.

Some $44 million of that money will be used to launch a pilot program of monitoring and surveillance in select cities to provide early warning of drinking water contamination, Johnson said.

California Democrat Barbara Boxer said the budget proposal "makes me question the administration's commitment to the environment and public health of the American people."

The overall request is a 5.7 percent reduction from current funding, Boxer said, and that decrease grows to eight percent when inflation is considered.

The proposal would provide the agency with "less funding than when President Bush came into office [in 2001]," Boxer said.

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The Army Creek Landfill Superfund site in New Castle County, Delaware contaminated nearby Army Creek and water supply wells. It was cleaned, capped and a groundwater treatment system installed. (Photo courtesy EPA)
The California Democrat took specific aim at the cuts in the Superfund program.

Although the overall program's funding is increased, the administration's request for remediation of sites is $82 million less than is currently appropriated.

The Bush budget also fails to call for the renewal of a tax on polluting industries used to help cleanup orphan sites, Boxer said.

The polluter pays provision expired in 1995 when the Superfund trust fund was at a historic high of some $3.6 billion - the fund is now empty.

"This is the only administration that has opposed the polluter fee," Boxer said. "There is insufficient funding for the Superfund backlog and taxpayers are footing the whole bill."