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Bush Plan to Cut Mercury Emissions 'Dangerously Inadequate,' Environmental Activists say

Environmental activists say a Bush Administration proposal for cutting toxic mercury emitted by power plants is dangerously inadequate.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced a plan in January to cut mercury emissions from coal-burning plants by 15 tons a year, or 70 percent, by the year 2018. In the meantime, the EPA is setting up a so-called "flexible cap," to allow smaller reductions and give plants more time to meet the government's regulations.

Coal-fired plants are the main source of mercury emissions, which are also found in land-fills and battery recycling facilities. Unlike states such as Pennsylvania, New York does not have a coal industry. But environmentalists say the toxins travel long distances through the air to waterways. Fish, including tuna, swordfish and mackerel eat bacteria that has converted organic or methyl mercury on the bottom of the ocean. The Bush administration proposal to give plants more time to meet the regulations cannot take effect without public hearings on the issue.

The Sierra Club, a nationwide environmental organization, along with several lawmakers and consumer advocacy groups, has expressed opposition to the plan in writing and at hearings on Wednesday in Illinois, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

The head of the Sierra Club in New York, Susan Mattei, is calling for an additional hearing in New York State, where 38 bodies of water have posted advisories warning about the high level of mercury in fish.

"We are going to fight these rules," she said. "We are going to fight for a hearing and if they do not listen to the science, we may have to fight these rules in court. We cannot allow this to happen. The technology is here now to prevent mercury pollution."

Ms. Mattei made her remarks at a news conference outside the EPA's regional headquarters in New York. She says the new rules fail to treat mercury as a hazardous air pollutant.

But the EPA says its rules will allow for early reductions in mercury emissions as soon as 2010, "benefiting health and the environment." The agency says it has also proposed requirements for monitoring in some states.

But some northeastern states have already proposed their own tougher rules.

Dr. Nathan Graber of the Department of Pediatric Environmental Medicine at New York's Mt. Sinai hospital, says mercury toxins stored in body fat can cause brain damage in fetuses and young children.

"The mercury that gets to humans comes primarily through the food chain, accumulates in fish, which are eaten by both pregnant women, women of child-bearing age, children and it cause damage to the central nervous system," explained Dr. Graber. "The damage in the brain has been proven and the most significant effects have been seen in the domains of language, attention and memory and these effects are irreversible."

According to the Washington-based National Research Council, more than 60,000 newborns a year may be at risk for neuro-development disorders from pre-natal exposure to mercury.