The Bad Math of Mercury

by ALAN FARAGO

You have to wonder about the Bush White House and its poor handling of mercury-pollution rules that put the unborn at special risk.

The Environmental Protection Agency is reacting badly to data that its brand-spanking-new rule for reducing mercury pollution, calling for a 70 percent reduction in mercury pollution by power utilities, may not be achieved as promised in 2018, a date many experts say is already too far in the future, but only by 2025 or longer.

In a New York Times story, an EPA spokesperson defensively suggested cleaner skies would indeed be ahead, because, "the agency’s models did not build in the assumption that mercury controls will become cheaper, and so more appealing to the utilities, as time passes."

Don’t worry, America; when technology is cheaper, sometime in the future, government and industry will protect you from being poisoned.

Curbing mercury pollution is a problem for an administration that never saw an environmental regulation it did not want to cut in half. That is why rules that smudge dates on compliance is the next best thing to outright gutting of the law.

For instance, in Florida last year Gov. Jeb Bush, the president’s brother, went along with the sugar industry by voiding a hard line of 2006 to stop its pollution of the Everglades — the foundation of the $8 billion Everglades restoration plan –fudging the specifics so thoroughly that environmentalists named Bush’s new law, "The Everglades Whenever Act." Federal agencies, whose staff were predisposed to object, were meek as lambs.

Now, the Bush White House appears to be backtracking from the mercury-emission rule just released and written largely by the electric utility industry at the insistence of the White House, in what the EPA deftly mislabeled an "interagency process."

Perhaps news finally filtered to the president’s desk that the EPA’s own scientists doubled the risk estimate of fetuses exposed to mercury. Mercury accumulates in fetuses in concentrations far higher than mother’s blood. The National Institutes of Health are investigating the possible role of mercury in sharp spikes in rates of autism and learning disabilities in children.

Today, one in six mothers and 600,000 children per year are at risk to be born with elevated mercury levels. So whether you are Christian, Jew, Buddhist or Muslim: the fetus of your child is likely to be ingesting nutrients and also mercury at twice the rate previously predicted.

Which leads to a question of President Bush’s staunch supporters: Why isn’t the religious right joining the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Sierra Club to sue the federal government for failing, in its new mercury rule, to account for "lost" mercury from chlorine plants, which spews more mercury into the atmosphere every year than the entire power plant industry?

And a few other questions: If the religious right is really concerned about the well-being of fetuses, why has it not focused on the manipulation of science to benefit polluters, why has it not rooted from the White House those ideologues putting the profits of industry ahead of the weakest, most vulnerable, the least able to defend themselves; fetuses, infants, and the young? Where are the protests and Sunday sermons?

The leaky reasoning in the Bush White House recalls the hypothesis of the Roman Empire’s undoing. It collapsed, not from the costs of supporting far-flung armies, but from lead poisoning. The story goes, Emperor Nero fiddled while Rome was burning because he and his imperial retinue were maddened by lead. Incidentally, the Roman god associated with lead was Saturn, who devoured his own children.

But who reads history in this White House? As for the religious right, it is easier to march to the drumbeat of morality down a one-way street. Heaven forbid there might be traffic coming the other way, in the form of soccer moms, NASCAR dads and environmentalists who treasure the sanctity of life above earthly pride and profit. For the Bush accountants, that math would be bad news indeed.

ALAN FARAGO writes frequently on the environment and politics. He lives in Coral Gables.

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