U.S. Senate Squelches Mercury Panic

Published November 1, 2005

The U.S. Senate voted on September 13 to reject an environmental activist-inspired challenge to the Bush administration’s new rules regulating mercury emissions from power plants. The Bush mercury rules were sustained by a vote of 51-47.

Rules Are First Ever

In March, the Bush administration issued the first-ever rules regulating emissions of mercury from coal-burning power plants. Many scientists had raised doubts about the urgency or need for such regulation.

The Bush rules, when fully implemented, are intended to reduce mercury emissions gradually over the coming years–a 29 percent reduction by 2010 and a 70 percent reduction by 2018.

Environmentalists claim the Bush plan doesn’t cut emissions rapidly enough. They have been advocating a plan they say would achieve 90 percent reductions much sooner than the Bush rules.

At the urging of environmental activists, a group of senators forced a vote on the new mercury rules, employing a 1996 law providing Congress with a brief window of opportunity to repeal agency rules after they have been issued.

Science Overcame Propaganda

Leading up to the vote, environmental activists did their best to spread alarm about the Bush rules.

In September, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG) released a report, “Made in the USA: Power Plants and Mercury Pollution Across the Country,” which alleged, “Power plants are the largest industrial sources of U.S. air emissions of mercury, a potent neurotoxin that poses serious health hazards. Mercury is particularly harmful to the developing brain; even low-level exposure can cause learning disabilities, lowered IQ, and problems with attention and memory.”

Nevertheless, a majority of senators deferred to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientific findings that most global mercury emissions are natural in origin and most of the human-caused emissions are from Asia and Europe.

EPA has studied mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants, concluding, “regional transport of mercury emission from coal-fired power plants in the U.S. is responsible for very little of the mercury in U.S. waters.” The EPA study notes, “Human-caused U.S. mercury emissions are estimated to account for roughly 3 percent of the global total, and U.S. coal-fired power plants are estimated to account for only about 1 percent.”

Importantly, mere exposure to mercury isn’t necessarily harmful. Despite much research, opponents of the Bush mercury rules could not identify a single study that credibly links typical exposures to mercury directly to any sort of health effect.

Might Prevent Lawsuits

In addition to the lack of scientific justification for more stringent standards, implementation of the Bush rules is projected to cost $2 billion, while the environmentalists’ preferred alternative has been estimated to cost $358 billion.

“The Bush rules themselves are an overreaction to an overhyped issue,” said Sterling Burnett, senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis. “The science does not show the need for new mercury protections.”

Said Burnett, “The most significant benefit of these new rules is the provision of some legal certainty regarding mercury emissions. EPA has spoken. Now Congress has spoken, too. Activist groups and their allies in a few state attorney general offices will have a hard time convincing the courts that their never-ending lawsuits against power companies and the federal government are justified.”

Steven Milloy ([email protected]) publishes JunkScience.com and CSRwatch.com and is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute. This essay was first published on FoxNews.com on September 15, 2005 and is reprinted with permission.

For more information …

For more information on the new mercury rules, see the Environmental Protection Agency’s Web site at http://www.epa.gov/air/mercuryrule/basic.htm.