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New EPA mercury rule omits conflicting data
Study called stricter limits cost-effective
By Shankar Vedantam
The Washington Post
Updated: 11:51 p.m. ET March 21, 2005
When the Environmental Protection Agency unveiled a rule last week to limit mercury emissions from U.S. power plants, officials emphasized that the controls could not be more aggressive because the cost to industry already far exceeded the public health payoff.
What they did not reveal is that a Harvard University study paid for by the EPA, co-authored by an EPA scientist and peer-reviewed by two other EPA scientists had reached the opposite conclusion....
The Harvard study concluded that mercury controls similar to those the EPA proposed could save nearly $5 billion a year through reduced neurological and cardiac harm. Last Tuesday, however, officials said the health benefits were worth no more than $50 million a year while the cost to industry would be $750 million a year.
"They are saying if they fail to regulate mercury from power plants at all, it really wouldn't make a difference," said John Walke, clean air director with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group. "To acknowledge the real benefits would be to raise the next question: Why didn't you go further?"
James Hammitt, director of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis and co-author of the study, agreed: "If you have a larger effect of the benefits, that would suggest more aggressive controls were justified...
...Although EPA spokeswoman Bergman said last Tuesday that the "costs of this rule outweigh the benefits," officials said later in the week that the cardiac benefits could change the equation. "We say the costs are bigger than the quantified benefits," McGartland said. "No one can definitively say the costs are bigger than the benefits."
Harvard's Hammitt, who was cautious in describing his findings, readily acknowledged the uncertainties in such analyses. But he questioned the EPA's decision to ignore a study that the agency had paid for and that agency scientists Jacqueline Moya and Rita Schoeny had reviewed.
"If they think there is no significant effect of U.S. power plants on the marine fish we eat, they ought to make that case as opposed to just ignoring it," he said. The fact that U.S. contribution to mercury in oceans "is a small part of the problem doesn't mean it is a part of the problem that should be ignored."
Hammitt's Harvard Center for Risk Analysis has been widely cited by the Bush administration on various science issues. Hammitt assumed leadership of the center from John D. Graham, who is now the administrator of the Federal Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the White House Office of Management and Budget. Hammitt noted that Graham was criticized during his confirmation hearings for being "pro-industry."