Scrubbing mercury data at the EPA

Here's one way to deal with analysts who disagree with your policies: Pretend they don't exist.

By Katharine Mieszkowski
Published March 22, 2005 4:05PM (EST)

If you don't like the findings of your scientists, simply ignore them.

Judging from a story in this morning's Washington Post, that's apparently the practice when it comes to writing regulations for toxins at the Environmental Protection Agency. The Post reports:

"When the Environmental Protection Agency unveiled a rule last week to limit mercury emissions from U.S. power plants, officials emphasized that the controls could not be more aggressive because the cost to industry already far exceeded the public health payoff.

"What they did not reveal is that a Harvard University study paid for by the EPA, co-authored by an EPA scientist and peer-reviewed by two other EPA scientists, had reached the opposite conclusion.

"That analysis estimated health benefits 100 times as great as the EPA did, but top agency officials ordered the finding stripped from public documents, said a staff member who helped develop the rule. Acknowledging the Harvard study would have forced the agency to consider more stringent controls, said environmentalists and the study's author."

At least the jilted scientists can take comfort that they're in good company. Their colleagues over at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have had their own recent experiences with politics dictating policy, irrespective of scientific fact.

Trying to justify the omission of the data on the controversial mercury rule, officials told the Post that the study hadn't been submitted in time for the new regulation. But others at the EPA flatly contradicted that, saying that they'd been briefed about the study's findings last August. Plus, the data was used in a presentation by EPA officials to the Washington Post in early Februrary.

Another justification for omitting the study's findings: the accusation that the research was flawed because it included controversial data about the impacts of mercury on the human heart. Mercury, which is largely ingested by humans through eating fish, is known to put developing fetuses and small children at risk for brain damage. Its impacts on cardiac health are less well established.

Still, Praveen Amar, director of science and policy for the organization Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management, questioned why the EPA ignored the study. Amar asked in the Post: "Are you saving the industry a billion dollars but taking away $10 billion worth of benefits for the general public?"

Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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