Softening up

US' mild stand on mercury

Published: Thursday 15 January 2004

in what is being seen as yet another attempt by the Bush government to promote its pro-industry policies, the us Environmental Protection Agency (epa) has proposed a lenient plan to limit mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants. The proposal envisages giving the units 10 more years to implement changes than planned by the Clinton administration in 2000.

Even as the regulation is sought to be put in place, the Clear Skies Act of 2003 -- which proposes similar measures -- remains stalemated in congress. According to the new proposal, power plants will have to reduce mercury emissions by 69 per cent by 2018. The earlier plan, under the 1990 Clean Air Act to improve air quality, aimed for a 90 per cent cut in emissions by 2008.

The plan also downgrades mercury as a toxin as it is clubbed with sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, instead of pollutants like asbestos. This will allow trading in mercury emissions in the market without any mandatory control on each plant. epa had previously ruled that mercury had to be regulated as a hazardous air pollutant under the Clean Air Act, which meant that individual power plants were to be monitored.

Environmental groups are against a market-linked plan since they think it will spawn hot spots of mercury contamination. For their part, industry groups have been seeking such a regulation as it is considered cost-effective.

"Mercury is a serious public health threat. We were regulating it.... This (move) reverses that (effort) and puts public health at risk," said Carol M Browner, who served as epa administrator under Bill Clinton. High levels of mercury can cause neurological problems in infants and young children.

"It (the plan) presents the appearance, and perhaps the reality, of allowing children to be poisoned for the sake of campaign contributions," lamented Michael Bender, director of Mercury Policy Project, which promotes policies to eliminate the toxic metal's use.

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