The latest setback for the Bush administration's environmental policies is likely to be a godsend for tens of thousands of newborn infants.
A federal appeals court last week struck down a mercury-control plan imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency three years ago. The three-judge panel ruled unanimously that the administration had ignored the law when it imposed less stringent requirements on power plants to reduce mercury emissions, which scientists fear could cause neurological problems in 60,000 newborns a year.
In 2000, during President Clinton's administration, the Environmental Protection Agency determined that mercury emissions posed a serious threat to public health and the environment. The agency drew up strict controls on emissions by power plants designed to take full effect this year.
Coal-fired power plants are the largest source of mercury emissions in the United States, producing 48 to 50 tons of mercury a year, which is released directly into the atmosphere from smokestacks. EPA officials estimated that by requiring companies to use the best technology available to reduce mercury emissions, emissions would have been reduced by 90 percent as of this year.
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But instead of enacting strict controls, the EPA under the Bush administration adopted standards pushed by the industry. The agency established an emissions trading process -- known as "cap and trade" -- in which some plants could buy pollution credits from other plants to avoid installing the best mercury control technology available.
The EPA set national caps of 38 tons of mercury emissions from power plants by 2010, and 15 tons beginning in 2018. A goal of reducing emissions by 70 percent would not be reached until well after 2018, according to EPA officials.
Environmental and health experts feared those caps were woefully inadequate. Another fear was that "hot spots" of mercury contamination could form near plants that had avoided installing new emissions control systems. Seventeen states and a variety of environmental and health groups joined in a lawsuit to block the regulations, saying they did not do what was necessary to protect public health.
Both the federal government and 45 states have issued health warnings about eating fish contaminated with mercury, particularly to women of childbearing age. Mercury that falls into the nation's lakes, rivers and streams has made many domestic fish unfit to eat because of their high mercury content.
Thankfully, the appeals court determined that, by watering down the mercury control policy established in 2000, the administration had violated the federal Clean Air Act. We hope efforts to regulate mercury emissions now will be back on track.
This is only the latest environmental affront by the Bush administration to be struck down by the courts. The Supreme Court last year rebuked the administration for not regulating greenhouse gases. Courts also have rejected administration attempts to overhaul federal forest policies and streamline fuel economy standards for small trucks.
We often hear criticism of "activist" courts that usurp executive powers. But these rulings are clear examples of courts checking an attempt by a pliant administration to do the bidding of industries in gutting environmental policies designed to protect the environment and the health of the American people.
Court said Bush administration ignored federal law in gutting clean-air rules.
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