Mercury Rising: How Bush’s Clear Skies Initiative Will Raise Pollution Levels

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Hotline, Spring 2003

by Diana Krucik, GASP Intern

President Bush’s Clear Skies Initiative for controlling air pollution is not what it appears to be. The bill, which plans to lower air pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides, and mercury in the long run (ten to fifteen years), is in actuality increasing the amount of air pollution allowed (compared to the Clean Air Act) in the immediate future. This means more health threats and contaminated food and water for citizens.

Mercury is a toxic metal released into the atmosphere by industrial polluters, including coal-powered plants and municipal waste incinerators. There are roughly 1,000 electricity-generating power plants in the U.S. that burn millions of tons of coal. Mercury descends from the polluted air into local waters. Here, it works its way up the food chain, being absorbed by the fish that end up on many families’ dinner plates. Even low doses of mercury could be harmful to unborn babies, young children, and the elderly. Health problems include blurred vision, tremors, irritability, memory loss, immune system damage and cardiovascular diseases. The EPA recently released its second annual report and found that eight percent of women of childbearing age have unsafe levels of mercury in their bodies. Clearly, something needs to be done.

Bush’s Clear Skies bill is causing some large controversies about emission reductions. Under current law, mercury emission levels will be reduced to between 5 and 15 tons by 2008, as much as a 90% reduction per plant. President Bush’s plan allows 26 tons of mercury emissions by 2010, which is only a 46% reduction nationwide. In fact, “the Environmental Protection Agency’s own analysis shows that the current Clean Air Act will provide greater pollution reductions than those proposed by the President’s plan.”1

Compared to the Clean Air Act, in 2018 Bush’s bill will increase nitrogen oxides by 36%, increase sulfur oxide emissions by 50% and mercury emissions by 200%. Also, the plan has time delays that could let companies keep overpolluting for up to 10 years.

In the current Clean Air Act, if upwind states cause violations of health based air pollution standards, the downwind states can force upwind states to control their pollution. The Administration’s plan effectively repeals this “state rights” provision, prohibiting downwind states from pursuing any pollution reductions from power plants in upwind states before 2012, and after 2012 the burden of proof to show any upwind contribution to downwind pollution will be very challenging.

The Clear Skies Initiative is not what it appears to be. People do not want to see a future filled with acid rain and smoggy skies. It would be much better for the current Clean Air Act to be left in place. Poisons are filling the air we breathe and are contaminating the food we eat and the water we drink. By the time Clear Skies reduces the emissions, thousands more will have varying degrees of health problems. What will the future bring? Citizens can make a difference. Contact your representatives with your views.

1. Natural Resource Defense Council. Fact Sheet on the Bush Administration’s Air Pollution Plan. August 1, 2002.
Pegg, J.R. Bush Aims to Slow Mercury Reduction Efforts. Environment News Service.