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Politics stands in way of protecting air from mercury pollution

Think sanity has been restored in Washington just because of a couple of sensible decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court?

Think again.

Because here's how crazy things still are:

The Republican Party is so good at labeling reasonable regulations as "job killers," and the Obama administration is so used to tucking its tail between its legs, that a rule protecting babies' brains from being damaged by mercury is apparently indefensible this election year. And, of course, the government can't ask cement plants — including two north of Brooksville — to get moving on rules that would spare the lives of hundreds of Americans killed by breathing dirty air. That would be way too much of a political risk.

In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency — and where it gets the nerve to keep using that name is beyond me — sounds almost proud of a new rule delaying and weakening a crackdown on pollution by cement plants, which, by the way, are second only to electric companies when it comes to spewing mercury into the air.

"These proposed amendments would promote flexibility, reduce costs and ease compliance burdens" on cement plants, the agency said right in the text of an amended rule on cement plant emissions released late last week.

That's one way of looking at the amended rule. The other is "more time to do less," said Sam Edmondson, campaign manager for Earthjustice.

That's the organization that has fought for years to require the EPA to enforce emissions standards for mercury and several other compounds, something that agency barely did for more than 35 years after the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970.

And it only really addressed the problem in 2010 when it passed a rule that was supposed to go into effect in 2013. The rule would have finally cracked down on the release of chemicals such as mercury, benzene and formaldehyde; it would have reduced particulate matter emissions by about 90 percent.

That last pollutant is the stuff that can actually be seen coming out of smokestacks. It's also the stuff that sets off asthma attacks and kills vulnerable people.

Delaying this rule by two years, which is one thing last week's decision does, will "cause between 1,920 and 5,000 premature deaths, 3,000 non-fatal heart attacks, 34,000 cases of aggravated asthma and 260,000 missed days of work due to respiratory illness," Edmondson wrote in an email, citing EPA estimates.

The delay also means two more years of mercury emissions at the current level. And though the economic slump has caused the temporary shutdown of one of the two Cemex plants in Hernando, the plants cranked out more than 200 pounds of the deadly neurotoxin as recently as 2008.

When the new rule does finally go into effect, plants won't have to monitor emissions continually, as the previous version required, but just once every three years. And they'll be able to spew out 43 percent more particulates.

Here's why this is really a shame, why it's so crazy: The EPA didn't have to do it.

A court ruling has upheld almost all of the 2010 rule. A bill that would have undermined it sailed through the House of Representatives — aided, incidentally, by a vote from U.S. Rep. Richard Nugent, R-Spring Hill — but stopped dead in the Senate.

So why the backtracking? My best guess is that Democrats were afraid political operatives would use the 2010 rule as an example of President Barack Obama hamstringing a domestic industry and opening the door for imports of cheap Chinese cement.

"That's the only explanation I can think of," said James Pew, the Earthjustice lawyer who has fought for years to impose stricter regulations on cement plants. "At least I don't live near one of those things."

If only we were that lucky.

Politics stands in way of protecting air from mercury pollution 06/28/12 [Last modified: Thursday, June 28, 2012 10:41pm]
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