Hearing on the State of Mercury Regulation, Science, and Technology
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for holding this subcommittee hearing on mercury perspectives, science and technology. I must say it is a pleasure to attend a hearing on something other than global warming. The issue of clean air is an important one, and is an issue this Committee should be focused on.
There is much work to be done. For instance, there are still some areas that are out of compliance with particulate matter standards and in serious nonattainment with ozone standards. I recommend this Subcommittee examine what can be done to bring these highly polluted areas into compliance with existing law.
But we cannot let the failures of these few counties distract us from the enormous progress we have made in cleaning up pollution in this country. Since 1970, we have had tremendous economic growth, and tripled our energy use and vehicle miles traveled. Despite this, instead of tripling our pollution or doubling or even holding it constant, we have cut our pollution levels by more than half. This is a success story that – hard as it is to believe – few people even realize is true.
This gets to the heart of my greatest concern over the mercury debate. Few understand it, and some have preyed upon that lack of understanding. We are literally scaring ourselves to death over mercury. A few years ago, when EPA and the FDA issued a joint advisory on mercury and environmentalists turned up their alarmist rhetoric, tuna consumption plummeted. People became afraid to eat fish because they believed it was bad for them.
Let’s be clear: all seafood has some level of mercury – always has and always will. It is an element, pervasive in the environment and bioaccumulative. The question is not whether mercury causes birth defects and even kills in high doses – it does. The question is whether it’s harmful in extremely low quantities. According to the biggest, best designed and longest running study ever done, the answer is a resounding “NO.”
What most people do not realize is that is that the dose makes the poison. Fish is brain food. A diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids reduces colon and lung cancers and numerous other ailments, and aids brain development in the womb. The Seychelles Islands study found that, even though their seafood-rich diet meant they consumed more mercury than Americans, eating the seafood was beneficial. Let me repeat: by discouraging people from eating fish, we are literally scaring them to death.
That isn’t to say we shouldn’t make progress in bringing down mercury levels. We should and we are. But we need to put the issue in perspective.
Like other pollutants, mercury levels have also come down dramatically. Numerous industries that used to emit high levels of mercury, such as the municipal waste incinerators, have been controlled. The power sector industry is merely the latest industry to be regulated. And the regulations are significant – the Clean Air Mercury Rule will reduce power plant mercury emissions by 70 percent. And because the rule acts in coordination with the Clean Air Implementation Rule – which reduces SO2, NOx, and particulate matter – it can be done for $2 billion.
While there are many promising technologies on the horizon, some of which we will hear about today, no technology exists for which vendors will guarantee 90 percent mercury reductions, and some of these technologies are not appropriate for plants that are already controlled. According to the Energy Information Administration, setting a 90% reduction mandate on mercury over three years would cost up to $358 billion. That’s right – cutting 70% will cost $2 billion, but incrementally increasing that amount to beyond what the technologies can reliably do would cost up to $358 billion.
Mr. Chairman, we all agree that reducing pollution levels in this country is important and that more can be done. But we cannot let political preferences let us lose sight of the fact that diverting enormous economic resources to this comparatively smaller problem away from the important mission of bringing ozone and soot levels into compliance with existing law is wrong-headed. And we cannot lose sight of the fact that this scaremongering is doing more harm to the health of our citizens than the very small incremental reductions that tightening the mercury standard further would achieve.