Statement of Senator Jeffords

We are here to discuss a very important issue to all of us: Mercury pollution. Power plants, mostly from the Midwest, are the largest unregulated source of mercury in the country, emitting almost fifty tons each year into our air. To put this amount into perspective, just 1/70th of a teaspoon of annual mercury deposition can make fish in a twenty-five acre lake unsafe to eat. Utilities, amazingly, are releasing enough mercury into our air every year to contaminate 45 million lakes. When utilities burn coal, they release much of its mercury content into the air. This mercury falls with the rain into lakes, streams, and the ocean. This toxic mercury is eaten by fish, and increases in concentration up the fish food chain as smaller fish are consumed by larger fish. Eventually, humans and other animals eat the fish, and the mercury too. This year, the Centers for Disease Control found that one in twelve women of childbearing age has mercury levels above EPA's safe health threshold – due primarily to consumption of poisoned fish. This totals almost five million women, and results in almost three hundred thousand newborns with increased risk of nervous system damage from exposure in the womb. The big question is, why aren't we doing something about it? The Bush Administration has put forward a proposal called "Clear Skies." And while it has a catchy name, it delivers a false promise, in fact, a look at the fine print shows that Clear Skies actually provides less protection than existing law. "Clear Skies" will eliminate important Clean Air Act programs that protect local air quality, not supplement them. For utilities, "Clear Skies" will strip the Clean Air Act of the Mercury Air Toxics Rule, which I like to call the Mothers and Children Mercury Protection Rule. "Clear Skies" delays compliance with strong air quality protections for almost a decade. This delay would result in thousands of additional asthma attacks, hospitalizations, and premature deaths caused by smog and soot, as well as, birth defects caused by mercury pollution. There is no excuse for this delay. The technologies exist today to cut mercury and other pollution dramatically and cheaply. Many States in New England are already moving ahead with emission reduction plans, federal law should bolster those and by at least as strong. I have joined many of my colleagues here in introducing bipartisan federal legislation to require power plants to greatly reduce emissions that cause smog, acid rain, respiratory disease, mercury contamination and global warming. In fact there are a number of bipartisan proposals before Congress to strengthen our clean air laws. But the Bush Administration won't even discuss them with us. Unfortunately, the Bush Administration appears less interested in protecting mothers and children from mercury poisoning, and more interested in protecting the polluters' bottom line. Tomorrow, the Senate Environment Committee, of which I am the ranking member, will hold a hearing on the nomination of Utah Governor Mike Leavitt to be the next Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. I have met with Governor Leavitt, and he seems to be a fine and honorable man. But when he comes before the Committee tomorrow he will have to explain why this Administration is moving us backward instead of leading us forward on environmental issues - at the expense of public health. He's going to have some tough questions to answer. If the Bush Administration believes that the American public will not hold them accountable for these actions against our environment they are gravely mistaken. Once again I would like to thank everyone for being here today. I look forward to an informative listening session, with some important testimony that I will bring back to Washington.