To the list of Campaign 2004's make-or-break issues -- Iraq, homeland security, lost jobs, tax cuts -- we can now add tuna fish sandwiches.
I'm not kidding.
I was recently at a dinner filled with smart, passionate, politically active guests. When the talk inevitably turned to the presidential campaign I was surprised to find that the issue that really set the table humming was the Bush administration's outrageous undermining of efforts to curtail mercury pollution -- and stop the increasing contamination of America's air, water and fish-of-choice.
The administration's lies -- and ongoing rationalizations -- about WMD are utterly contemptible, but messing with people's tuna salad hits them right in the gut.
And this is not some theoretical menace whose effects won't be felt for decades. After a recent medical checkup, I was shocked to discover that I have elevated levels of mercury in my bloodstream -- as do my sister and four of my closest girlfriends.
The primary source of mercury emissions is coal-fired power plants, which pump out 48 tons of the highly toxic pollutant a year. A second important source is the chemical industry. This mercury pollution drifts into our lakes, rivers and oceans, and ends up in the fish we eat. Which means it ends up in us. As a result, more than 600,000 babies a year may be born with unsafe levels of mercury in their blood, putting them at risk for mental retardation, cerebral palsy, deafness and blindness. How's that for a security issue?
In adults, exposure to mercury can cause infertility, high blood pressure, tremors and memory loss, which perhaps explains Jessica Simpson's befuddling inability to remember if Chicken of the Sea had fins or feathers.
Later this year, the Environmental Protection Agency will issue new mercury emission standards, setting a limit for the first time on the amount of mercury the nation's 1,100 coal-burning power plants are allowed to release into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, the Bush administration is clearly intent on subverting the process by which those standards are set.
Back in 2001, the EPA created a task force made up of state air quality officials, environmentalists and representatives of the utility industry to determine the best way to reduce mercury emissions. But after working diligently on the issue for close to two years, the group was unceremoniously disbanded before completing its work -- and its recommendations were scuttled in favor of a plan that was, surprise, surprise, more to the liking of the White House's buddies, benefactors and cronies in the power plant industry.
Without getting shrouded in a toxic cloud of technical mumbo jumbo, the bottom line is that current technology offers a way to reduce mercury emissions by 90 percent over the next four years -- but the Bush administration has opted for a plan that would, at best, lower the noxious output by just 50 percent over the next 14 years, while setting no meaningful limits on the tons of mercury released by the chemical industry. All of which will save the power, coal and chemical industries billions.
Choke on that for a minute: Big Power gets a tasty multibillion-dollar treat, while everyone else is served up a Toxic Tuna Surprise.
Of course, cooking up distorted scientific findings and dishing out political favors at the expense of the public good has become something of a blue plate special at the Bush White House.
So has allowing lobbyists extraordinary input on legislation and regulations affecting the industries they represent. In the case of the administration's proposed mercury rules, no less than a dozen paragraphs were directly lifted, often word for word, from memos prepared by lobbying and advocacy groups representing power and energy companies with a major financial stake in the outcome of the regulatory process.
But that's not the half of it. It turns out that two of the key EPA regulators overseeing the development of the mercury guidelines, Jeff Holmstead and William Wehrum, used to represent utility industry clients before Bush tapped them for high-ranking posts in the EPA's Office of Air and Radiation. They were both attorneys at Latham and Watkins -- a high-powered Washington law firm that's been lobbying the administration to adopt the less stringent mercury standards, and which authored one of the memos cribbed in the EPA proposal.
Here's a thought: Maybe the White House can save taxpayers some money and have Holmstead and Wehrum put back on the Latham and Watkins payroll, seeing how they continue to be such devoted company men. Call it the privatization of the EPA.
This kind of fox-guarding-the-henhouse cronyism is fortunately being challenged by almost 200,000 citizens, who've signed a MoveOn.org petition opposing this blatant payback to Bush's utility industry contributors. And later this week, MoveOn will launch a hard-hitting television and print ad campaign designed to stoke public outrage over the Bush mercury proposal, which the EPA's own Children's Health Protection Advisory Committee declared, "does not sufficiently protect our nation's children."
Here's a suggestion: Perhaps the president should take a page from Don Rumsfeld and keep a shard of tin from a can of contaminated tuna on his Oval Office desk as a daily reminder of the havoc his irresponsible environmental policies are wreaking on the health of America's kids. Bush wants this election to be a referendum on his performance as guardian of our safety. I couldn't agree more.