Mercury Rises Over EPA Pollution Rules

As the Environmental Protection Agency prepares to announce next week final rules intended to reduce mercury emissions (search) from power plants, EPA officials and the Bush administration are coming under heavy fire from the Government Accounting Office, Congressional Democrats, and environmentalists.

But in reality, it’s another pointless Washington, D.C. political tug-of-war that we should all hope no one wins.

In January 2004, the EPA proposed several options for reducing mercury emissions from power plants. A technology-based option capping pollution at each U.S. power plant and supposedly reducing mercury emissions by 29 percent by 2008 is favored by environmentalists.

The EPA estimated that this option would cost power plants -- that is, users of electricity -- $2 billion per year and provide $15 billion or more in annual benefits.

A so-called “cap-and-trade” option (search), favored by the Bush administration, would not set emissions limits at every plant, but would instead establish a national emissions cap (search). The EPA would then distribute emissions allowances to power plants that could be traded between plants. Under cap-and-trade, emissions allowances would be reduced by 29 percent by 2010 and by 70 percent by 2018. The agency estimated the cap-and-trade option would cost $3 billion to $5 billion annually and provide anywhere from $58 billion to $73 billion or more per year in benefits.

Though it appears that the cap-and-trade option offers a much better cost-benefit ratio, the Government Accounting Office (search) poured cold water on the EPA’s plan this week in a report claiming that the agency distorted its cost-benefit analysis to make it appear that the Bush administration’s cap-and-trade option was superior to the technology-based option preferred by environmental groups.

“The administration is showing a blatant disregard for the health of children, the health of women of childbearing age,” Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., told the Washington Post. “The agency’s mercury rule first failed the public health test. It then failed the science test. Now it’s clear that EPA cooked the books,” added an environmental activist.

The criticisms are partly valid and partly junk science. Incredible as it may seem, none of the benefits estimated by the EPA for either option are tied to human health improvements resulting from lower mercury emissions, according to the GAO.

The GAO recommended that the EPA go back to the drawing board and include in the cost-benefit analysis the human health benefits of reductions in mercury emission from power plants or at least to provide qualitative information on how these benefits are likely to compare under the technology-based and cap-and-trade options.

But this would be an exercise in futility. Although mercury emissions from power plants have never been regulated before, no scientific study documents a single adverse health effect attributable to mercury from power plants.

In September 2001, researchers from Brookhaven National Laboratory estimated the incremental health risk to fetuses -- supposedly a highly vulnerable population -- from power plant emissions of mercury to be between 1 in 1 million and 1 in 100,000. In EPA-land, such minuscule and hypothetical risks typically do not warrant regulatory action.

A November 2004 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “confirmed that the blood mercury levels in young children and women of childbearing age usually are below levels of concern.”

One reason for the absence of data linking power plant mercury emissions with health effects is that U.S. power plants simply aren't a major source of mercury emissions. Including natural sources of mercury, U.S. electric utilities are responsible for only about 0.6 percent of global mercury emissions.

The glaring fact is that there likely will be no health benefits resulting from reduced mercury emissions, regardless of whether they’re brought about by the Green-supported technology-based option or Bush administration-supported cap-and-trade option.

So how did the EPA estimate that its proposed mercury control options would bring about billions of dollars in annual health benefits even though reductions in mercury emissions have not been demonstrated to bring such benefits?

The vast majority of the estimated human health benefits for the two options were based on supposed reductions in premature deaths, heart attacks and respiratory ailments allegedly attributable to reduced levels of emissions of fine particulates (soot) from the plants -- a hypothesized by-product of proposed mercury control options.

While these estimated health benefits sound great, they are most likely illusory. Though the EPA has claimed since 1996 that soot causes premature deaths and other health problems, this assertion has never been credibly substantiated.

I’m all for reducing air pollution to the extent further reductions will provide real and measurable benefits at a reasonable cost. That is quite different than the current mercury circus featuring fabricated risks and fake benefits.

Steven Milloy publishes and, is adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and is the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

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