Bush's EPA: More Mercury, Less Justice

8 April 2004

By Stentor Danielson

Liberals have long argued that the Bush administration shows little concern for environmental protection or social justice. Pending rule changes on emissions of the neurotoxin mercury threaten a deadly synergy of the two failings.

Much of the commentary about the mercury rules has centered on the politicization of the research and rulemaking process at the EPA. Critics charge that the EPA lifted language from reports filed by the effected industries, that normal scientific studies were not carried out, and that political appointees leaned on civil servants to get results favorable to the administration. These are important issues, but it's also important to keep in view the effects that the proposed rules would have on the environment and on the most vulnerable Americans.

EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt's current preference is for a cap-and-trade model for controlling mercury emissions. A cap-and-trade system involves setting a limit on total emissions, and allowing polluters who can't pull their own weight to buy credits from those who can easily reduce their emissions by more than the law requires. Cap-and-trade is popular among conservatives who seem to think it's a market-based approach, despite the fact that all the work of reducing pollution is done by the regulatory cap, not by the market-based trading. (A real market-based solution would be pollution taxes, which would let the market decide how much to reduce pollution in response to this new cost.)

The cap-and-trade system is bad enough in terms of overall pollution reduction (though it's a step up from the current unregulated situation). Because cap-and-trade is meant for less serious pollutants, the law would require it to accomplish a 70 percent reduction in mercury emissions by 2018. Under the alternate Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) approach -- which mandates state-of-the-art emissions controls on all polluters -- mercury emissions would fall by 90 percent in the next three years. Despite the administration's complaints about burdening industry, studies and testimony by states, environmental groups, the EPA itself, and even industry indicate that MACT-level reductions are well within the range of economic and technical feasibility. But cap-and-trade also poses an environmental justice problem.

Cap-and-trade is a worthwhile option for pollutants like greenhouse gasses, for which the location of the emissions isn't important (they all go into the same global climate system). Unfortunately, mercury is not such a pollutant. Mercury is prone to high concentrations around the point of emission. A system like cap-and-trade that would permit some plants to avoid reducing their emissions would leave these "hotspots" in place.

Pollution hotspots aren't randomly distributed around the country. Toxic industry clusters in disadvantaged communities, imposing its burdens disproportionately on the poor and racial minorities. The reasons are varied -- overt prejudice, lower land costs, less effective political opposition, driving away those who can afford to move and drawing in those desperate for work -- but the geographic fact remains.

What's more, the FDA and EPA recently issued a warning that pregnant women and children should limit their consumption of fish (a warning environmentalists criticized as too weak) because of elevated levels of mercury. The importance of fish as a pathway for mercury contamination is of interest because many of the poorest Americans (particularly Native Americans) depend on catching fish to fill out their diets. They would have more difficulty avoiding contaminated food.

President Clinton was hailed by environmental justice advocates for signing an administrative order in 1994 mandating that the EPA take into consideration the disproportionate impacts of environmental problems on the poor and racial minorities. But like so much else of the Clinton environmental legacy, this executive order has fallen by the wayside under Bush.

A recent report by the Office of the Inspector-General found that the EPA's environmental justice programs range from incoherent to nonexistent. The issue is rarely raised, funding commitments are low, and standards vary from region to region. Indeed, the Bush administration is forthright in its rejection of the plain language of Clinton's executive order. EPA officials claim to be pursuing "environmental justice for all," which means giving no special attention to those populations most at risk from pollution. The EPA specifically declined to undertake mandated studies of the effect of the proposed mercury rules on disadvantaged populations.

"Environmental justice for all" is symptomatic of the conservative view of social justice. By this view, all that matters is the average outcome -- the average wealth, or the average environmental quality. This philosophy is blind to the harm done to people at the bottom, as long as they're balanced out by someone somewhere else.

In reality, the worst off need special protection. Poverty and racial discrimination make some communities more vulnerable to pollution than affluent white communities would be to the same level of pollution. They lack the wealth, political clout, and social networks that would enable them to cope with hazards like mercury contamination. A part per billion of mercury does more damage in Main South than in Burncoat. If you add in the disparities in pollution exposure, environmental and social justice exacerbate each other.

The publicity that the mercury story has gotten, combined with the feasibility of sweeping reductions in mercury emissions, offer some grounds for optimism that this problem, at least, may come out right in the end. For a broader commitment to environmental justice, we may have the beginning of an answer in November. One of the few principled bones in John Kerry's body seems to be the environmentalism bone, and the Democratic candidate has made promises to push for environmental justice. Hopefully those promises are not as empty as Bush's rhetoric.

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