Senate Fails in Bid to Block Bush Mercury Plan

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, September 13, 2005 (ENS) - The Senate today narrowly defeated a resolution to block the Bush administration’s controversial plan to cut mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants.

The 51-47 vote upholds a federal rule that permits a mercury emissions trading program, which critics contend violates the Clean Air Act and fails to address the serious public health and environmental concerns associated with the toxic metal.

"The rule is not based on sound science," said Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, "and it will harm human health and the health of our environment."


FirstEnergy's Bruce Mansfield coal-fired power plant in Pennsylvania, a coal-rich state. (Photo courtesy Kiyo Komoda)
Exposure to mercury, usually through eating fish contaminated by mercury emissions that fall upon waterways, can cause permanent neurological damage in humans and reproductive harm in wildlife.

Some 44 states have issued fish consumption advisories due to mercury contamination in some or all of their waters.

Young children and women of childbearing age are most at risk – the federal government estimates at least one in eight American women of childbearing age has unsafe levels of mercury levels in her blood.

Senator James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, said sponsors of the resolution were wasting time on a measure that had no chance of affecting the implementation of the Bush rules.

Inhofe called the vote "purely political and essentially meaningless," noting that the White House had pledged to veto the resolution and that the House was unlikely to even consider it.


Vermont Senators Patrick Leahy (center) and Jim Jeffords spoke with the media yesterday about their efforts to repeal the controversial mercury pollution rule. (Photo courtesy Office of Senator Leahy)
Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and cosponsor of the resolution, said the Senate action "let some healthy sunshine into the Senate to exposed a flawed rule that puts special interests over the health of the American people."

"This was a debate that powerful special interests had been able to prevent, until now," said Leahy. "We have garnered more support than anyone thought possible just a few months ago when we began this effort."

Debate on the measure reflected sharp disagreement about the Bush administration’s mercury plan - divisions that breach party lines.

Six Democrats joined 45 Republicans in voting against the resolution; nine Republicans, 37 Democrats and the Senate’s lone Independent supported the measure.

Mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants are currently unregulated - these facilities emit some 48 tons of mercury each year, accounting for about 40 percent of the nation's mercury pollution.

Proponents say the Bush plan, which aims to reduce these emissions some 70 percent by 2018, is the most cost effective way to cut mercury pollution and is modeled after a program that has successfully cut acid rain pollution.

Deeper cuts would hurt the industry, supporters say, and raise electricity costs without much benefit to public health.

But the Bush plan has drawn broad criticism and is the subject of several federal court challenges by more than a dozen states and an array of public health and environmental groups.

Critics say it is an inappropriate regulatory approach because of the danger posed by the toxic metal.


U.S. Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who chairs the Senate Environment Committee, said the resolution was a waste of time. (Photo courtesy Friends of Jim Inhofe)
The cap and trade plan puts industry-wide limits on mercury emissions and issues tradeable credits to plants that reduce emissions below the limits. But it allows some plants to avoid making any reductions. Opponents contend this will create local hot spots of pollution, disproportionately impacting individual communities.

"I am confounded by the failure of this rule to meet either the spirit or letter of the law," said Senator Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican. "It is clearly delinquent in protecting all Americans equally from the hazards of mercury."

Industry supporters are overstating the economic impact of stricter regulations, Leahy said, and underplaying the health benefits that would accompany cuts in mercury pollution.

A peer reviewed study released last week by the Mount Sinai School of Medicine’s Center for Children’s Health and the Environment estimated some $2 billion a year is lost due to the public health impacts of mercury pollution, Leahy said.

"We are telling a whole generation of women and children that their health is less important than energy companies’ profits," Leahy said.

The Senate resolution took specific aim at a March 2005 rule that allows the federal government to implement the cap and trade plan.

That rule, finalized in March 2005, reversed a previous decision by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that determined mercury emissions from power plants should be reduced using maximum achievable control technology (MACT).

Supporters of the resolution say that reversal is a clear violation of the Clean Air Act and noted that development of the mercury policy was littered with controversy.

Large passages of the draft rule were lifted verbatim from industry memos and a report by the EPA Inspector General found that senior agency officials manipulated the development of the mercury rule in order to favor the emissions trading plan.

In addition, the Government Accountability Office determined the EPA’s economic analysis of the mercury rule was seriously flawed and violated the agency’s own policy guidelines.

The facts point to "an intentional and illegal effort to circumvent the law … designed to benefit big energy companies at the expense of the public," said Senator James Jeffords, a Vermont Independent.

Opponents of the Bush mercury plan contend power plants should be forced to cut emissions much more quickly than the goals outlined in the current regulations.


Peninsula Harbour, at the Lake Superior North Shore town of Marathon, Ontario is contaminated with mercury. The greatest concentrations of mercury lie in the waters close to the paper factory shown by the smokestack near the center of the photo. (Photo courtesy EcoSuperior)
They note that in a presentation to an industry trade group in 2001, EPA officials said a MACT standard could reduce mercury emissions 90 percent - to 5.5 million tons - four years after a rule is finalized.

MACT standards have been used to rein in the two other major sources of mercury pollution in the United States - medical and municipal waste incinerators.

Utility groups have lobbied hard against a mercury MACT standard, arguing that commercial technologies are too new and expensive to achieve such reductions, and noting that U.S. power plants only contribute one percent of global mercury pollution.

The resolution’s sponsors would derail the only mercury regulation on the books and fail to see that mercury pollution is "a global issue," according to Senator George Voinovich, an Ohio Republican.

"The technology does not exist to accomplish what proponents want," added Senator Kit Bond, a Missouri Republican. "If I had a magic wand, I would be happy to wave it and support a 90 percent reduction. But I don't."

Advocates of a stronger mercury rule say the United States should lead by example. They contend advanced emissions reduction technology does exist and will be commercially available once there is a strong market demand for it.

"It is all well and good we want to reduce emissions in 2018 by 70 percent," said Senator Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat. "We can do better than that. We ought to do better than that."