Thursday, March 24, 2005

American Minamata 

A couple of days ago Zemblan patriot D.R.B. sent us a link about the EPA's new mercury emissions policy, which is, unsurprisingly, another one of those DIY voluntary-compliance laissez-faire specials the Bush administration seems to favor:
[O]fficials 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.
Because we were lazy and distracted by paying work we neglected to post the story, but we hope to make up for it by bringing you Molly Ivins's splendid harangue directly below. As Ms. Ivins points out, the "public health payoff" of the new EPA policy will be borne primarily by the "600,000 babies of the approximately 4 million born a year [who] are potentially exposed to mercury emissions." But such is the nature of our burgeoning "culture of life" -- every fetus has the right to be born, and every industrial polluter has the right to poison it in the womb:

[T]here is a picture, quite a famous one, that you should search out so you will know what is at stake. The picture, by the great photojournalist W. Eugene Smith, is known as "The Madonna of Minamata" and is of a Japanese woman in a hot bath with an expression of terrible sorrow and tenderness on her face as she holds the hopelessly deformed body of her daughter.

Smith's classic book, "Minamata: Words and Photographs," is about the site of a horrific 1970s case of widespread mercury poisoning. No one who sees Smith's photos can ever forget them. There was a years-long struggle between the townspeople of Minamata and the corporation responsible for the mercury poisoning, which did not want to admit fault. During that struggle, corporate guards beat Smith so badly he lost his eyesight.

So, that's what this is about. Not that anyone has blinded a great photojournalist lately, but mercury in the environment is mercury in the environment, and mercury hotspots are mind-bogglingly dangerous. Mercury is a neurotoxin that is particularly dangerous to developing fetuses and infants. Even in minute quantities, it produces brain damage ranging from retardation to loss of IQ to attention deficit disorder.

As you may know, one in six American women of child-bearing age already has enough mercury in her blood to put a developing fetus at risk. That's why pregnant women are urged not to eat many ocean and freshwater fish. Mercury also causes heart attacks among adults.

If the Clean Air Act, already in place, were simply implemented as it is supposed to be by the Environmental Protection Agency, we would be rid of over 90 percent of mercury emissions in this country by 2008. But, of course, that would cost the power industry a lot of money, and the power industry gives lots of money to politicians. So the EPA came up with a "cap and trade" system, under which power plants can avoid meaningful regulation until after 2025 . . . .

The worse news is that "cap and trade" allows individual power plants to trade emissions credits, so while some states will have less mercury emission, other states will have enormous increases. God help you if you live near one of these future hotspots. NRDC estimates an 841 percent increase for California, 176 percent in Colorado, 241 percent in New Hampshire and 56 percent in New Jersey . . . .

I often think I have exhausted my capacity for outrage with this administration. Sheesh, why let what it does ruin a beautiful spring day in Texas? But I know kids with ADD and low IQs and brain damage, and I've seen the pictures from Minamata. If you can't reach outrage over this one, you may be eating too much mercury-tainted fish.
UPDATE (3/25): From the Washington Post, via our distinguished colleague Avedon Carol:
Three Senate Democrats and Sen. James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.) called on the Environmental Protection Agency yesterday to stay regulations issued last week to control mercury emissions from power plants.

The request follows concerns that the agency excluded a Harvard University analysis that found significantly greater health benefits from mercury controls than were estimated by the EPA.

"The Administration sought above all to maintain its story line and to adhere to industry assertions that stronger controls could not be implemented because of cost concerns and questionable health benefits," wrote Jeffords, Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and John F. Kerry (D-Mass.).

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