The Environmental Protection Agency distorted the analysis of its controversial proposal to regulate mercury pollution from power plants, making it appear that the Bush administration's market-based approach was superior to a competing scheme supported by environmentalists, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office said yesterday.
Rebuking the agency for a lack of "transparency," the report said the EPA had failed to fully document the toxic impact of mercury on brain development, learning, and neurological functioning. The GAO urged that these problems be rectified before the EPA takes final action on the rule.
The analysis follows a critical report by the EPA's inspector general that suggested that agency scientists had been pressured to back the approach preferred by industry.
"The administration is showing a blatant disregard for the health of children, the health of women of childbearing age, but they are also showing a blatant disregard for the law," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who had asked for the analysis. "To not change would be the height of arrogant disregard."
Cynthia Bergman, an EPA spokeswoman, said the agency is on track to issue the mercury rule by March 15. She said the final rule would provide comparisons between the competing options that the GAO said were missing.
"GAO has characterized the process as incomplete before the process has even finished," she said. She defended the EPA's development of the rule as "an open and inclusive" process.
The administration has publicly endorsed a cap-and-trade approach that would allow trading in pollution credits among power plants, rather than imposing limits on every plant. Environmental groups are so disenchanted with the trading proposal that they have stopped fighting it -- they want the agency to issue the rule in order to fight it in court.
"Their cap-and-trade system for mercury involves trading in toxic chemicals, which has never been done before," said Angela Ledford, director of the umbrella advocacy group Clear the Air. "The agency's mercury rule first failed the public health test. It then failed the science test. Now, it's clear that EPA cooked the books."
At issue is a proposal that the EPA issued in January last year to reduce the 48 tons of mercury emitted annually by U.S. power plants. The contentious issue has drawn 680,000 written public comments.
The proposal offered two options, but the administration made clear it preferred the trading system, which would achieve a 29 percent reduction in mercury emissions by 2010 and a 70 percent reduction by 2018. This plan allowed companies to trade pollution credits -- creating financial incentives that would prompt companies first to focus attention on reducing pollution in the dirtiest plants.
The alternative was what the GAO called the "technology-based" approach -- to cap pollution at every plant.
The administration said the cap-and-trade plan would reduce more pollution, in part because it would invite less litigation, and blend nicely with a cap-and-trade proposal to control sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, called the Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR).
But the GAO report said the EPA had tipped the scales to favor the market-based plan. For example, the EPA found that capping pollution at every plant would result in savings of $13 billion -- the difference between the estimated savings in health costs and the pollution control costs.
The EPA said the cap-and-trade approach provided a much larger benefit of $55 billion to $68 billion, but the GAO said yesterday that this analysis included the benefits from implementing the CAIR rule.
The report also suggested that the EPA had used dubious methods to assess the monetary value of mercury reductions. Although the approach was "quick and low-cost," the GAO said the method was characterized by great uncertainty and should have been treated "as a last-resort option."
Environmentalists and some agency staff have charged that the EPA strategy was ultimately designed to make President Bush's signature air pollution bill, dubbed "Clear Skies," palatable to Congress. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has been deadlocked for weeks over that bill, which essentially combines the cap-and-trade proposals of the mercury and CAIR rules.
Had the EPA properly compared the cap-and-trade approach with the technology-based approach, it would have been obvious that "Clear Skies" is deeply flawed, environmentalists said.
Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, an industry group, said the cap-and-trade approach to mercury pollution is a historic advance that is being undersold by environmentalists.
"Only in Washington would someone have the temerity to tell you a mandated 70 percent reduction constitutes a rollback," he said. "It takes a unique brand of moxie to say the next generation of air pollution controls reduces air pollution controls."
Mercury is a toxic metal linked to a broad range of health problems, especially in children and pregnant women. Mercury contamination of fish has led health authorities to warn women of childbearing age to reduce consumption of certain types of fish, and to stop eating fish such as shark and swordfish. In the short term, environmentalists and industry advocates agree that controlling individual exposure to mercury is the only way to limit health risks.