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Retrograde on Mercury

ONE REASON the federal government should take the strongest possible action to stop mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants is that this nerve poison accumulates dangerously in fish, a food that is otherwise such a healthful source of protein. Instead, the Environmental Protection Agency last month put into effect a weak rule that will require no specific measures against mercury until 2018 and after that will allow many plants to continue emitting at high levels.

Attorney General Thomas Reilly acted rightly Tuesday in including this state among nine that have sued the EPA for failing to protect expectant mothers and children, the main victims of mercury. Their case will be strengthened by a report in The Washington Post last month that the EPA, in its regulation-making process, ignored a Harvard study it paid for that showed a much greater health benefit to mercury reductions than the EPA has acknowledged. Senator Kerry has called on President Bush to intervene to have the EPA scrap its rule and start over.

In 2000, Bill Clinton's EPA ordered utilities to curb mercury by using the ''maximum achievable control technology." This is called for by the Clean Air Act in the case of hazardous pollutants such as arsenic or lead.

Industry, however, has talked Bush's EPA into rescinding the 2000 order. The new rules anticipate several years of gradual reductions in mercury pollution that would be a ''co--benefit" of mandates to limit other emissions, such as sulfur dioxide. By 2018, a cap on all mercury emissions would be in place, but power plants with high levels of mercury could continue spewing it by buying emission credits from other plants that exceed reduction targets. This would create mercury hot spots around plants with high emission levels. Strict enforcement of ''maximum achievable control technology" would result in reductions three times greater than the EPA rule's cap. The EPA justifies its failure to crack down harder by arguing that much mercury comes from foreign sources. But in February the United States opposed global mercury restrictions.

The Harvard study that was stripped from public documents by EPA officials estimated health benefits from mercury reductions at 100 times the level used by the EPA. Its disclosure was just the latest evidence that the agency cooked the books to arrive at its weak rule. In the past two months, both the EPA's own inspector general and the Government Accountability Office have faulted the agency's use of scientific evidence in making the mercury rule. When Reilly and the eight other attorneys general go into court to force the EPA to adopt a stronger rule, they will have much evidence on their side, not to mention the well-being of the nation's children.

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