The mercury fix

The damage caused by mercury in our air and water is no secret. The neurotoxin is especially dangerous to young children and developing fetuses, and is so pervasive that pregnant women are warned to limit the amount of swordfish and albacore tuna they eat. (The mercury levels in these and certain other fish are particularly high.)

It's also no secret where most of the mercury released into the environment comes from: coal-fired power plants. Yet this country has been waiting nearly two decades for the Environmental Protection Agency to propose regulations for reducing mercury emissions. Last week, under deadline from the courts, it finally did so.

Expect the usual complaints from industry that the regulations, which would reduce mercury emissions by 91%, will be expensive, will raise power rates and will accomplish too little. The first two complaints are true; the third is not. The EPA estimates that it would cost about $10 billion a year to fit power plants with the necessary technology; household electric bills might rise by up to $4 a month for several years. But consider how much would be prevented each year by the regulations, according to the EPA: 17,000 premature deaths, 120,000 asthma attacks and 850,000 missed days of work because of illness. In dollar figures, the reduced hospital visits and sick days, as well as reduced damage to the environment, would save the country an estimated $100 billion a year.

The EPA began drawing up these standards when Bill Clinton was president, but the work was derailed during the George W. Bush administration, which ran roughshod over environmental science. During those years, the agency ignored scientific facts in order to produce softer rules on mercury that were in large part written by the energy industry, and it withheld a report on mercury levels in women until the report was leaked nine months later. A lawsuit by a coalition of health and environmental groups finally forced the agency's hand.

Congressional Republicans are stalled in their most recent legislative effort to cripple the EPA and keep it from regulating a range of toxic substances, including mercury. But they are expected to keep trying. The EPA should not back down, and Americans should not tolerate this attack on their health. Hundreds of thousands of unnecessary illnesses and premature deaths could have been prevented had these regulations been imposed more than a decade ago. The nation can't go back in time to fix those, but it can refuse to repeat the pattern.

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