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EPA Officials failed to fully assess the health costs of Mercury


February 4, 2005
By Alan C. Miller and Tom Hamburger, Times Staff Writers

Internal watchdog blames administration political appointees for 'compromising' studies on the proper emission levels in power plants.

WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency's inspector general said Thursday that the Bush administration violated established scientific practices and regulatory requirements in drafting a controversial proposal to control mercury emissions from power plants.

The agency's internal watchdog determined that EPA officials failed to fully assess the health costs of mercury and understated how much emissions could reasonably be reduced.

The report was immediately cited by Bush administration critics as proof that the administration has risked the public's health for the benefit of coal-fired utilities — the largest producer of mercury emissions in the United States.

But EPA Assistant Administrator Jeffrey R. Holmstead said the report "rings hollow" because the agency has not yet finished its work on its rule to reduce these emissions. He said the report exaggerated the impact of U.S. power plant emissions on human health.

The report's strong conclusions are certain to set off a new, intense round of debate on the regulation of mercury, a toxic metal that pollutes water, contaminates fish and accumulates in human tissue.

In her report, Inspector General Nikki L. Tinsley said the EPA's political appointees instructed the agency's staff last year to use a predetermined target for reducing mercury, rather than doing the necessary studies to find the lowest possible emission levels that could be achieved in the shortest possible time.

Rather than relying on "an unbiased calculation" to make this determination, she said, the process "was compromised" by intervention from top officials.

Tinsley urged the agency to strengthen its pending rule "to better ensure that human health is protected." She also recommended that it conduct further analysis, including assessing the costs and benefits of emission reductions.

"We concluded that EPA's rule development process for this case was inconsistent with expected and past EPA practices, including a failure to fully assess the rule's impact on children's health," she said in a statement accompanying the 54-page report.

EPA officials emphatically rejected Tinsley's findings and reiterated their intention to reduce, for the first time, mercury emissions from power plants.

EPA spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman said the agency had, as the law requires, determined emission reduction goals based on the best technology available to control mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants. She said Tinsley failed to "consider the global nature of mercury exposure."

The EPA is doing additional analysis, she added, and intends to adopt its final mercury rule by March 15, as planned.

When the EPA announced its proposed rule in December 2003, it said the regulation would reduce mercury emissions from power plants by 70% by 2018. Officials have since dropped any reference to the time by which the reduction would be achieved.

A Washington lobbyist for the industry, Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, said the 70% reduction was an ambitious target for an industry working hard both to generate power and to meet clean air standards. He also said Tinsley was unqualified to examine such complex technical questions.

Seven senators requested the inspector general's inquiry after The Times reported last March that political appointees bypassed professional staff in crafting the rule and that industry lobbyists had written key parts of the proposal. Tinsley's eight-month inquiry confirmed The Times' major findings.

Last March, then-EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt vowed that the agency would do additional analysis in an effort to "maximize the level of reductions" based on the best available technology. He reiterated that promise in a November interview, prior to his nomination to head the Department of Health and Human Services. No successor at EPA has been named.

On Thursday, Sen. James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.), who had requested the inspector general's investigation along with six Democratic colleagues, said the report validated his concerns.

"Unfortunately, this report confirms that the administration's proposal to regulate mercury compromises children's health for the benefit of corporate profits," he said.

Some of the mercury particles and gases emitted as air pollution fall into rivers and lakes, where they enter the food chain. An EPA analysis has found that about 600,000 babies born in the U.S. each year may be exposed to dangerous levels of mercury in the womb, primarily from their mothers having eaten fish. Exposure can cause significant neurological and developmental damage.

In its mercury proposal, the EPA included two approaches, both of which Tinsley criticized.

The one preferred by the administration would set a national limit on emissions and then permit companies to choose whether to reduce their emissions or buy "credits" from other companies that make reductions. The EPA and industry contend this would be an incentive to cut emissions quickly without imposing financial burdens that would cause utilities to switch from coal to more expensive natural gas.

But this "cap-and-trade" approach, she said, could result in mercury "hot spots" — areas with higher concentrations of the pollutant in bodies of water near smokestacks.

The second proposal would mandate reductions at all plants. Tinsley criticized EPA's handling of this alternative for being insufficiently ambitious.

She concluded that EPA officials had instructed staff to set a modest reduction level that matched a separate administration legislative proposal known as "Clear Skies," rather than determining the maximum amount of achievable reductions by using the best available pollution control technology.

Dana Perino, a spokeswoman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, defended the administration's review of mercury and children's health. She said the administration did not fully review the costs and benefits of mercury regulation on children because "agency staff at the time did not believe they had the technical capability to quantify the benefits, and it is quite difficult to do it. However, as we move to finalize the rule, we are working hard to do as much quantitative analysis as possible."

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