Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy at the Mercury Pollution Hearing
before the Clean Air, Wetlands, Private Property and Nuclear Safety Subcommittee
of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee
October 1, 1998

Mr. Chairman, I want to thank you and Senator Chafee for convening this hearing. Over the years I have spoken many times on the floor of the Senate about my concerns about the ongoing threats from mercury pollution to the lands, rivers and lakes of Vermont and the rest of the country.

This hearing is an important early step in the journey to finally address the scourge of mercury pollution.

It has not been an easy journey, even this far. In the first congressional session of this Congress, I worked with many in the Senate and in the House to introduce a Senate resolution that called on the Administration to release its long overdue Mercury Study Report to Congress, a report that was mandated by the Clean Air Act of 1990.

Earlier this year I introduced S. 1915, the "Omnibus Mercury Emissions Reduction Act of 1998," which used the Mercury Study Report to Congress as part of its factual basis. If enacted, this bill would significantly reduce the risks that this powerful neurotoxin poses to the health and development of pregnant women, women of child bearing age, and children.

Most recently Senator Chafee and I have worked in the FY 1999 appropriations process to support EPA's efforts to begin collecting mercury emissions data from power plants, and to voice our strong opposition to report language on the EPA appropriations bill that would seriously hamper EPA's work on this pollutant.

Mr. Chairman, Vermonters share a deep and abiding concern for the environment. Vermont has enacted some of the toughest environmental laws in the country.

Unfortunately, despite these laws, we face threats from beyond our borders that we cannot control. Mercury is one of those threats, drifting silently into our lakes and waterways.

When I was growing up spending my summers on Lake Champlain, I never had to worry about eating the fish I caught -- I only had to worry about catching them in the first place. Now the Lake has fish advisories for walleye, lake trout and bass due to mercury.

As a new grandfather, I am looking forward to spending time with my grandson out fishing on Vermont lakes. I do not want to have to explain to him why he cannot eat the fish he catches.

What I tell my grandson in the future is largely a function of the direction we take in Congress over the next few years to protect the environment.

Are we going to look the other way, or are we going to build on the vision and the courage that two former leaders on this Committee, Senators Stafford and Muskie -- like Chairman Chafee and others on this Committee today -- have shown in bringing us to a higher level of accountability in protecting our environment?

Although we should be proud of the great strides we have made to reduce the levels of many air and water pollutants, rebuild populations of endangered species and clean up abandoned hazardous waste sites, we must now address the environmental threats that have to date defied easy solutions.

Finding those solutions will be even more important over the next few years as states and perhaps Congress restructure the electric utility market. This Committee will have the responsibility to find those solutions.

How do we reduce emissions of mercury and other pollutants from coal~ fired power plants without significantly increasing our utility prices? I introduced my mercury bill to begin to answer this question and to bring more attention to one of the last major toxins for which there is no control strategy.

When the 1970 Clean Air Act was written, Congress did not fully understand the dangers posed by mercury exposure. At the time of the 1990 Amendments, we knew enough to worry about it, but we couldn't agree on what to do.

Our response at that time was to write a provision into the law requiring EPA to do a thorough study of mercury pollution and formally report on it to Congress.

It took a long time to write the report, and then it took a lot of time and effort to overcome industry opposition to its release. Now we have the report, and it gives Congress the information to finally act to bring this toxin under control.

EPA's Mercury Study Report to Congress documents the troubling levels of mercury emissions that are being deposited over much of the country [DEPOSITION MAP]. The report estimates that at any point in time there are more than 1.6 million pregnant women and their fetuses, women of child- bearing age, and children, who are at risk of brain and nerve development damage from mercury pollution.

The Mercury Report shows that year after year sources in the United States emit at least 150 tons of mercury to the environment. Once released to the environment, mercury does not behave like many pollutants. [MERCURY CYCLE POSTER] As you can see from this drawing, mercury does not biodegrade. It recycles through our environment and accumulates in fish, and then it accumulates in the people who eat the fish.

Mr. Chairman, we invest tremendous amounts of love, time, energy and fiscal resources in our children, yet we are not protecting them from the possibility of being poisoned in the womb or in their early developmental years by this potent neurotoxin.

Other new facts on mercury pollution are also troubling. As you can see from this chart [ 1993 FISH ADVISORY MAP], there were 27 states with fish advisories for mercury contamination in 1993. In all, 899 lakes, river segments, and streams were identified as yielding mercury contaminated fish. By 1997, [1997 FISH ADVISORY MAP] you can see that 39 states had issued mercury fishing advisories, for 1,675 water bodies.

That is an increase of 86 percent. Mr. Chairman, we are going in the wrong direction. I do not want to wait until the entire map is filled with red before we summon the will to act.

Today, I am sure we will hear that it is not possible to determine the degree to which kids with learning disorders, coordination problems hearing, sight or speech problems are being banned by mercury pollution.

But we do know that just as with lead, mercury has much graver effects on children, even at very low levels, than it does on adults. We might not be able to precisely measure the harm done by mercury in children, but we should not use that as an excuse to do nothing.

We don't have to wait until we have a body count. We just need the will to act.

It is hard to believe today, but at the time, the decision to eliminate lead from gasoline was, itself, a controversial decision, and these same arguments were heard then. We WILL solve the mercury problem some day, and I hope it is soon. And just as with leaded gasoline, a few years after we tackle mercury pollution, our children and grandchildren will wonder why it took us so long to do the right thing.

The bill I have offered, S. 1915, is based on this new body of scientific evidence and proposes a comprehensive approach to eliminate mercury pollution from coal fired power plants, solid waste incinerators, and other industrial sources from our air, waters, and forests.

What I am proposing is that we begin putting a stop to this poisoning of America. Emitting 150 tons of mercury to the air each year is unnecessary, and it is wrong. Mercury can be removed from products, and it has been done. Mercury can be removed from coal-fired power plants, and it should be done.

Each year coal-fired power plants alone emit at least 52 tons of mercury into the air, one third of the U.S. total. With states deregulating their utility industries, Congress today has a unique opportunity to make sure that these power plants begin to internalize the true costs of their pollution so that market decisions can help us correct this problem.

If we don't level the pollution playing field now and make these power plants internalize the environmental cost of the way they produce power, in a deregulated industry the financial incentive will be to pump even more underpriced power and pollution out of these plants for as long as they will last.

In that case, we would never make a dent in those 52 tons of mercury emissions per year. In fact, that toll could easily rise.

As long as the rules of the game allow this, these companies understandably will act solely to suit their economic self interests, without taking into account the true costs to our communities and our people. As a nation, we cannot afford to subsidize their inefficiency, but our inaction does just that.

At the heart of the argument against taking action is a concern about the cost to curb mercury pollution. I want to address that up front.

When examined closely, that cost argument does not hold water. The EPA report estimates the cost nationally of controlling mercury emissions from power plants at $5 billion per year. This industry generates more than $200 billion a year in revenue. That is less than two and half percent, and that strikes me as the equivalent of a fly on an elephant's back.

We should not concede our responsibility to defend the health of our children to corporate accountants and lawyers.

As required by Congress, the EPA has overseen the most comprehensive scientific study ever on the sources of mercury pollution and on the harm mercury does to us and to our environment. With mercury pollution, as with other pollutants, we have the benefit of all the knowledge that science can offer us. The question is, will we pay attention, and then will we act to make our communities safer?

We have the technology to reduce the amount of mercury and other pollutants that spew from some powerplants. We know how to separate and recycle mercury-containing products before they reach the combustion units. We already have alternatives to the many products that contain mercury. It is time to begin acting on our knowledge.

Mercury pollution is a key piece of unfinished business in cleaning our environment. The health of our children and the health of our environment demand that we take action.

Mr. Chairman, I thank you and Senator Chafee for your attention to this issue, and I look forward to working with you on this in the months ahead and, the people of Vermont willing, in the next Congress.