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Mercury going down, but not enough

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Michael Leavitt, former governor of Utah and President Bush's pick to head up the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, came to town Dec. 16 to announce that the agency was regulating mercury emissions for the very first time. The new rules will reduce mercury emissions 70 percent by 2018.

This sounds like good news, until you consider that, before the Bush administration came along, the EPA had much more ambitious hopes: to reduce mercury emissions by 90 percent by 2008.

In fact, according to a Sierra Club estimate, the difference between the pre-Bush plan and the post-Bush plan equates to 300 extra tons of mercury released into the air from power plans in the next 15 years.

"Their spin is they're making this big mercury reduction, but it's really a rollback," says the Sierra Club's Colleen Kiernan, who helped organize a protest of about 20 people outside the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce's office, where Leavitt was appearing. "There's going to be more mercury in the environment than if the Bush Administration simply left the laws alone."

Leavitt's announcement comes at a time when the federal Food and Drug Administration has expanded its warnings about mercury found in fish. The FDA has added more species of fish to the list of those contaminated with mercury. Eating mercury-tainted fish can impede neurological development in children, which is why they -- along with nursing mothers and women who are planning on becoming pregnant -- are warned not to eat such fish.

By far, the greatest emitters of mercury are coal-fired power plants, which in an average year in the U.S. spew 40 tons of the stuff into the air. The problem is especially acute in Georgia and surrounding states, where, in 1998, Southern Co.'s power plants emitted more mercury than any other utility in the nation.

Just hours before Leavitt made his announcement here in Atlanta, he held a similar press conference in Cleveland, Ohio, where the American Electric Company emits almost as much mercury as Southern Co. While some may think Leavitt was putting those polluters on notice, Kiernan had another idea. "Maybe he's tipping his hat to both American Electric Company and the Southern Co., the two corporations who'll benefit most from this rollback."

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