Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Foxes Guarding the Environmental Chicken Coop -- Part LXVII

Krugman on Mercury: Bush's Latest Environmental Disaster

I've written a couple of times on one of the many Bush environmental scandals: recucing controls on mercury pollution, the administration letting industry write the new regs. The Bush administration (or should I say Bush's money friends) proposed an "cap and trade" program for mercury, a program that is incredibly inappropriate, as I explained last November:
So, imagine that the building next door to you is being torn down and you learn that it's spewing cancer-causing asbestos dust into the air around your home. You quickly call the Environmental Protection Agency expecting to see the building owners hauled off to jail. But the nice people at EPA say "Sorry, the owner of the building next door has bought some asbestos credits from the building owner across town who is doing an especially good job cleaning up his asbestos. Deal with it."

That's essentially what Bush's EPA is proposing in its new proposal to regulate mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants. A similar system is used for air pollutants like sulfur dioxide, that are not considered to be "hazardous air pollutants" under the Clean Air Act. Since mercury is a human neurotoxin, the Clinton Administrtion had decided that pollution credits would not be appropriate.
As usual, Paul Krugman reduces the technical complexity to their corrupt political essence. If it wasn't life-threatening, it would be getting boring after all of these years.
So how did the original plan get replaced with a plan so obviously wrong on the science?

The answer is that the foxes have been put in charge of the henhouse. The head of the E.P.A.'s Office of Air and Radiation, like most key environmental appointees in the Bush administration, previously made his living representing polluting industries (which, in case you haven't guessed, are huge Republican donors). On mercury, the administration didn't just take industry views into account, it literally let the polluters write the regulations: much of the language of the administration's proposal came directly from lobbyists' memos.

E.P.A. experts normally study regulations before they are issued, but they were bypassed. According to The Los Angeles Times: "E.P.A. staffers say they were told not to undertake the normal scientific and economic studies called for under a standing executive order. . . . E.P.A. veterans say they cannot recall another instance where the agency's technical experts were cut out of developing a major regulatory proposal."

Mercury is just a particularly vivid example of what's going on in environmental protection, and public policy in general. As a devastating article in Sunday's New York Times Magazine documented, the administration's rollback of the Clean Air Act has gone beyond the polluters' wildest dreams.

And the corruption of the policy process — in which political appointees come in with a predetermined agenda, and technical experts who might present information their superiors don't want to hear are muzzled — has infected every area I know anything about, from tax cuts to matters of war and peace.
Yes, we know they're bad guys. When will the rest of America (or at least that half that still seems to support him) wake up and smell the mercury?