"Unfortunately, the Clear Skies proposal would allow mercury emissions to continue at their current levels," said Carol Browner, EPA head during the Clinton administration. She added that enforcing current regulations would reduce pollution to a much greater extent than Clear Skies would.
Under current controls, the nation is implementing rules that will reduce by 90 percent the mercury emissions from municipal and medical waste incinerators, which account for about 30 percent to 40 percent of the nation's mercury pollution, Browner said.
"That very same law, the 1990 Clean Air Act, can be used to address the largest portion of the problem, which are the mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants," Browner said. "If you were to follow the schedule started in 1998 when we sent a report to congress on the impact of coal power plant emissions and the schedule that we then agreed to by 2004, it is believed that the agency would have a rule on the books for mercury from power plants that would have to be implemented by 2007."
Clear Skies, proposed last summer, would reduce mercury emissions from coal power plants to an aggregate 26 tons a year by 2010 and to 15 tons by 2018. Estimates of total mercury emissions from these power plants hover around 48 tons annually.
If Clear Skies is enacted, the first round of reductions would occur by 2010 and final reductions could be as late as 2025, Browner explained.
The impetus to reduce mercury in the environment is primarily the effect it has on children. A report by the Environmental Protection Agency called "America's Children and the Environment" was released Monday and outlines the potential harm mercury can pose to children.
The report said "prenatal exposure to methylmercury can cause adverse developmental and cognitive effects in children, even at low doses that do not result in effects in the mother."
Children can develop palsies, have seizures, learning problems and even structural abnormalities because of mercury exposure, said Robert Goyer, former chairman of the National Academy of Sciences.
Goyer explained when mercury from coal-fired power plants is released into the air, some returns to the surface, enters the water system and accumulates in fish. About 60,000 children born annually are at risk for methylmercury poisoning, he added.
"While no levels are set, if the EPA uses its full authority, mercury emissions could be reduced by 90 percent," said Felice Stadler, national policy coordinator at the National Wildlife Federation.
The non-profit organization, Clean Air Trust, translates this into reducing mercury emissions to 5 tons a year by the end of 2007.
"Now the Bush administration wants to roll back the current Clean Air Act and replace it with delays and permission to emit more mercury in coming decades," Stadler said. "Since when have we put utility power plant profits ahead of our children's health?"
The EPA's report on children "appears to be something that was being suppressed" until it appeared in the Wall Street Journal, said Frank O'Donnell, executive director of Clean Air Trust. However, he added, "mercury is the poster child for what's wrong with the president's (Clear Skies) plan."
Some stores have been putting up warning signs on fish counters about swordfish, shark and tuna, which have higher mercury content than others such as salmon, O'Donnell said.
Long-term consequences of mercury poisoning could be more extensive than discussed in the EPA's report. Goyer said in addition to developmental problems, mercury exposure has been linked to high blood pressure and heart rate abnormalities.
Because of the potential harm of mercury poisoning, "44 states have issued fish consumption advisories in 2001," Stadler noted, adding that millions of acres of water contain mercury in the United States.
Women who are pregnant should minimize their fish intake and get omega-3 fatty acids from other sources such as flax, a grain that can be found in some cereals, Stadler said.
Because of the risks to health mercury poses, Browner said if the White House and Congress want effective changes, "the test should be cleaner air sooner, not special deals for special interests."
Others who follow emissions regulations, however, had a different perception of what the Clean Air Act sets forth.
Although it might pre-empt stricter regulations, "Clear Skies would put more of a limit on mercury than the Clean Air Act," said Roberton Williams, fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. If specific figures under the 1990 law have been cited, Williams added, they would be based on its general mandate, which is anything that is a threat to human health must be regulated.
"If the EPA determines that mercury is a threat to human health, they have to do something about that," Williams explained.
Bud Para, director of legislative affairs at the Jacksonville (Fla.) Electric Authority, agreed the CAA language was fuzzy.
"My understanding is that the Clean Air Act does not say mercury would be reduced to 5 tons," he said. "What it does say is the EPA will look at it and set standards based on health findings."
According to the EPA's Web site, Clear Skies, overall, would reduce air pollution more than laws already in place.
"Clear Skies would codify the emission reductions and timetables announced by the President to cut power plant emissions of these pollutants by 70 percent, eliminating 35 million more tons of these pollutants in the next decade than the current Clean Air Act," the Web site states.