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Mercury Emissions Rule Geared to Benefit Industry, Staffers Say

Buffeted by complaints, EPA Administrator Michael Leavitt calls for additional analysis.

March 16, 2004|Tom Hamburger and Alan C. Miller | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Political appointees in the Environmental Protection Agency bypassed agency professional staff and a federal advisory panel last year to craft a rule on mercury emissions preferred by the industry and the White House, several longtime EPA officials say.

The EPA staffers say they were told not to undertake the normal scientific and economic studies called for under a standing executive order. At the same time, the proposal to regulate mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants was written using key language provided by utility lobbyists.

The Bush administration has said that the proposed rule would cut mercury emissions by 70% in the next 15 years, and is tied to the president's "Clear Skies" initiative. Critics say it would delay reductions in mercury levels for decades at a risk to public health, while saving the power and coal industries billions of dollars.

Studies designed to address such questions are the ones that were not conducted.

EPA veterans say they cannot recall another instance when the agency's technical experts were cut out of developing a major regulatory proposal.

The administration chose a process "that would support the conclusion they wanted to reach," said John A. Paul, a Republican environmental regulator from Ohio who co-chaired the EPA-appointed advisory panel.

He said its 21 months of work on mercury was ignored.

"There is a politicization of the work of the agency that I have not seen before," said Bruce C. Buckheit, who served in major federal environmental posts for two decades. He retired in December as director of the EPA's Air Enforcement Division, partly because he felt enforcement was stymied. "A political agenda is driving the agency's output, rather than analysis and science," he said.

Russell E. Train, a Republican who headed the EPA during the Nixon and Ford administrations, said: "I think it is outrageous. The agency has strayed from its mission in the past three years."

Buffeted by complaints about the mercury proposal from both within and outside the agency, EPA Administrator Michael O. Leavitt in recent days has called for additional analysis. EPA staffers say they have been asked to suggest possible comparative studies for the agency to run, much like the analysis that, they say, they were ordered not to conduct last year.

"The process is not complete nor is the analysis," Leavitt said in an interview Monday. "I want it done well and I want it done right. And I want it done in a way that will maximize the level of reductions" based on the available technology.

Leavitt noted that while the EPA expressed a clear preference for a more flexible, market-driven plan, its proposed mercury rule also includes an alternative approach using a traditional regulatory system requiring all plants to install pollution controls.

Leavitt portrayed the new period of inquiry as part of the "normal process" of rule-making, noting that the agency had so far filed only a provisional rule. But veteran regulators say it is unusual to propose a rule first and do extensive comparative studies later -- unless new information emerges.

Leavitt said he could not speak to what happened at the agency before he arrived in November, but that he has had "no pressure to do anything other than the right thing from the White House."

Christie Whitman was the EPA administrator when the career employees say they were told not to conduct the analysis. She left the agency in June, six months before the proposed rule was announced.

"I did not know that we were cutting a process short or shortchanging the analysis," Whitman said in an interview Monday. Had she heard such allegations, she said, she would have intervened.

Five current career employees -- all speaking on condition they not be named for fear of job retribution -- and several former officials provided a behind-the-scenes account of the EPA's decision-making in the mercury case.

*

A cascade of studies in recent years has cast mercury as an escalating health danger, although its threat to the human nervous system has been known since at least the 19th century. That is when hat makers in England literally went mad from exposure to a mercury compound used in processing felt -- hence the expression "mad as a hatter."

Today, the use of mercury in U.S. manufacturing is tightly restricted. But there has been no strict limit on mercury released into the atmosphere from the nation's 1,100 coal-fired power plants, the largest single source of mercury in the U.S.

Mercury occurs naturally in the environment, in fossil fuels like coal, and is released into the atmosphere when those fuels are burned. When mercury particles and gases drop into water, some turn into a more toxic form known as methyl mercury, which then enters the aquatic food chain. People are exposed to mercury chiefly by eating fish.

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