If there was any doubt that industry interests are dictating federal environmental policy under Bush, the Environmental Protection Agency's own internal watchdog abolished that illusion last week.
In a report, the EPA's inspector general found that the rule-making process for regulating mercury pollution from power plants had been tainted. Coal-fired power plants are the largest source of man-made mercury pollution in the U.S., although there's new evidence that a handful of chlorine plants are also big sources of the toxin.
As the New York Times reported on Friday: "The Environmental Protection Agency's inspector general charged on Thursday that the agency's senior management instructed staff members to arrive at a predetermined conclusion favoring industry when they prepared a proposed rule last year to reduce the amount of mercury emitted from coal-fired power plants ... The inspector general's report, citing anonymous agency staff members and internal e-mail messages, said the technological and scientific analysis by the agency was 'compromised' to keep cleanup costs down for the utility industry."
Mercury accumulates in fish, which, according to the EPA, can cause brain damage in human fetuses and young kids.
Under the Clean Air Act, it has to be cleaned up, but the question is: How much, and how fast? In March, the Bush administration will formally release new regulations that will require the plants to cut mercury pollution 70 percent by 2018. But environmentalists have long argued that a 90 percent cut by 2008 is technologically and economically feasible.
In light of the fishy goings-on at the EPA, the inspector general's report urges the agency to "conduct an unbiased analysis of the mercury emissions data" and rewrite the rule accordingly. But as the Denver Post editorialized Monday, that's not likely to happen: "When the EPA proposed the rules in 2003, environmentalists said the program was a gift to the electric industry. Last week's inspector general's report provides proof that the EPA wasn't playing it straight. Bizarrely, the EPA insists that it will go ahead with its weak, final mercury rules scheduled for formal release March 15. The move is foolish politically and scientifically because the rule will have no credibility."