How's the fishing in Crawford?

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Published August 25, 2004 10:42PM (EDT)

This August, not even the local fishing hole provides an escape from presidential politics.

Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that many of the nation's rivers and lakes are polluted with mercury, dioxin and other toxic chemicals. Mercury poses health risks to pregnant women and children who eat fish contaminated with it.

Only two states -- Wyoming and Alaska -- haven't issued warnings about toxins contaminating locally caught fish, according to the E.P.A.'s new national listing of fishing advisories. A full 35 percent of all lake acres in the country, and 24 percent of the river miles are now covered by such warnings.

At a press conference in his office on Tuesday, Michael O. Leavitt, the Bush administration's E.P.A. administrator, played down the findings. He argued that they do not represent an increase in mercury pollution, just better monitoring of it. He pointed out that last year states issued 3,094 advisories for toxic substances, compared with 1,233 in 1993. "More and more of our waters are being tested, and that's protective for children and pregnant women," he said in a statement. "Emissions are down, and emissions will continue to go down as the Bush Administration takes the first-ever steps to regulate mercury from coal-fired power plants."

Environmental groups don't see the announcement that way. "Irrespective of whether it's worse or whether this just reflects good information, it's a wake-up call," Jon Devine, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Salon. "It shows that there is widespread contamination of our inland water bodies." Devine notes that by the E.P.A.'s own estimates about 40 percent of mercury emissions annually come from power plants.

"The Clean Air Act requires these plants to install the maximum achievable controls, and requires them to do so by 2008," says Devine. But the E.P.A. under Bush, he adds, "has proposed a rule that would require an almost laughable reduction of 29 percent by 2010, and a program to allow sources to trade their mercury pollution, so that their ultimate goal of 70 percent reduction won't be achieved until after 2025. It's power plant rule is grotesquely weak."

A spokesman for the Kerry campaign told the New York Times that if elected president, Kerry would support sharper reductions in mercury in a shorter time frame than the Bush administration's current plan.

Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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