WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration overlooked health effects and sided with the electric industry in developing rules for cutting toxic mercury pollution, the Environmental Protection Agency's inspector general said yesterday.
The agency fell short of its own requirements and presidential orders by ''not fully analyzing the cost-benefit of regulatory alternatives and not fully assessing the rule's impact on children's health," the agency's internal watchdog said in a 54-page report.
The report by Nikki L. Tinsley said the EPA based its mercury pollution limits on an analysis submitted by Western Energy Supply & Transmission Associates, a research and advocacy group representing 17 coal-fired utilities in eight Western states.
The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to set the limits based on the most advanced pollution controls used by industry. Tinsley said agency workers were instructed by ''EPA senior management" to develop a standard compared with other regulations and a White House legislative plan, ''instead of basing the standard on an unbiased determination" of the limits.
In response to the report, EPA officials said it was ''not true" that the administration proposed mercury pollution standards without following requirements of the law.
Mercury from power plants settles in waterways and accumulates in fish. The toxic metal can cause neurological and developmental problems, particularly in fetuses and young children. It also is being studied for risks associated with cardiovascular diseases.
Senator Jim Jeffords, an Independent from Vermont, and six Democratic senators asked Tinsley in April to investigate how the EPA put together the mercury rule it proposed in December 2003.
''This is one of the most disturbing examples I've seen of an administration allowing spin and junk science to endanger the health of our children," said Senator John F. Kerry. ''I have always thought this proposal to allow more mercury in our environment is wrong and should be scrapped. This administration, which refuses to listen to sound science, must now listen to their own Inspector General and do what's right by American families."
The Food and Drug Administration has warned that high levels of mercury in some fish, including albacore tuna, can pose a hazard for children and for women pregnant or nursing.
The EPA estimates that about 8 percent of American women of childbearing age have enough mercury in their blood to put a fetus at risk.
According to the inspector general's report, the EPA has ''wide latitude" in deciding which pollution data it uses and does not want its regulation to encourage utilities to switch from coal to natural gas.The pending regulation envisions a 70 percent cut in mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants by 2018, from the current 48 tons a year to 15 tons.