Bush's toxic EPA

Mercury pollution puts more than 600,000 American newborns at risk per year for permanent brain damage. Why is the administration siding with polluters?

Published May 18, 2005 5:39PM (EDT)

Major environmental groups and public health advocacy organizations announced four different legal challenges in federal court to the Environmental Protection Agency's weak new mercury pollution rules today. The dozen groups argue that the Bush administration's new mercury regulations don't do enough to reduce emissions of the harmful neurotoxin from coal-fired power plants. The poison contaminates fish, especially impacting large predators, like tuna and swordfish, which are popular with American diners.

Attorneys general from 13 different states, including New Jersey, California, New York, New Hampshire and Vermont, have already filed suit against the rules, on the grounds that they don't meet the standards of the Clean Air Act. Today, Earthjustice announced it is suing in federal court on behalf of the Sierra Club, Environmental Defense and the National Wildlife Federation. The Clean Air Task Force filed suit for the U.S. Public Research Interest Group, Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Ohio Environmental Council. And the Waterkeeper Alliance, led by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., is suing too, along with Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Conservation Law Foundation. Finally, the Natural Resources Defense Council is making its own case against the mercury rule.

"Everyone knows that this rule is illegal," said Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., president of the Waterkeeper Alliance, in a joint statement. "Congress knows it, industry knows it, even E.P.A. knows it -- and the courts are about to know it."

But even if the suits are successful, it will take years for all these legal challenges to have any impact on the air -- years when the health of hundreds of thousands of American newborns will be put in danger. According to scientists from the Environmental Protection Agency, mercury pollution puts more than 600,000 American newborns at risk a year for permanent brain damage, which can lead to a lifetime of learning disabilities and developmental problems. "Mercury does not affect everyone equally," said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. "The E.P.A.'s job is to 'protect human health and the environment' but what it's really doing is putting more women and children at risk of mercury poisoning."

The Bush Administration has argued that mercury pollution is a global problem, and that cleaning up at the polluting sources at home won't have much impact on it. So, the administration has advised American women in their child-bearing years and parents of young children simply to avoid the most contaminated fish. Yet, the administration has simultaneously fought international regulations against mercury pollution, arguing in favor of voluntary actions on the part of industry.

"In what is becoming an all-too-familiar pattern, instead of protecting the public, the Bush administration chose to side with polluters," said Supryia Ray, an advocate for U.S. PIRG. "The administration is imposing risks on America's children that no parent would want to take."

This sorry state of affairs has led some to take action outside of the court system. One Salon reader was so incensed by the contamination of the tuna fish his toddler loves that he and his wife mailed all their canned tuna to the White House in protest. At the post office, the window attendant asked him, "Are there any toxic or hazardous substances in the package?"

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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