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New EPA Mercury Rule Omits Conflicting Data

Hammitt's analysis also factored in recent evidence that mercury causes heart attacks among adults. The EPA said other studies contradicted that finding and therefore it quantified only the impact of mercury's better-known neurological hazards. Spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman called Hammitt's cardiac analysis "flawed."

The EPA's McGartland, an economist, said that the preliminary Harvard results sent to the agency on Jan. 3 were inadequate, and that the full study did not become available until February. He questioned the Harvard findings about marine mercury, arguing that ocean levels of mercury do not easily change. No EPA draft of the rule ever discussed the Harvard results, he said.

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But the EPA staff member involved with developing the rule said the reference deleted from rule-making documents would have told the public about the Harvard results. "The idea was to say Harvard School of Public Health had quantified these [cardiac] benefits and the amount of these benefits was -- " a blank that was to be filled in with a figure in the billions once the final report became available, said the staff member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

EPA scientist William Farland, who is the agency's deputy assistant administrator for science in research and development, said he had not seen the Harvard analysis and could not comment on its quality. He said the EPA had not quantified the cardiac costs of mercury because "the science is just not strong enough at this point." While mercury could well damage the heart, he said, that harm might be offset by the known cardiac benefits of eating fish.

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."

"I didn't think that was terribly fair," Hammitt said. "Now here we are, doing the same kind of analysis and it comes out in a more environmentally protective direction than EPA is, and they ignore it. There is an irony in that."

The Harvard study was commissioned through EPA grants to an independent nonprofit organization of northeastern-state governments that works on regional environmental issues. Praveen Amar, director of science and policy at the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management, said the EPA provided about $270,000 in funding for the project. Amar said that scientist Glenn Rice, Hammitt's co-author, is an EPA employee who had been given time to work on a doctoral thesis at the Harvard center.

"Are you saving the industry a billion dollars but taking away $10 billion worth of benefits for the general public?" Amar asked.

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