The Mercury Rule \ A Tipping Point

by Gary Bergel

“Pollution is essentially a by-product of our vastly increased per-capita consumption, intensified by population growth, urbanization, and changing industrial processes. In the coming years, problems of environmental degradation will rise exponentially.” (Ash Council Memo to President Richard Nixon, 1970)

The close of 2011 finds the U.S. at an historic ecological tipping point.

On Friday, December 16, 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) signed the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS). On Wednesday, December 21, these MATS were publically unveiled by EPA Administrator, Lisa P. Jackson, at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, DC.

Also termed “The Mercury Rule” because they will sharply limit the emissions of mercury, a long-studied neurotoxin, the MATS will also set overall federal standards on emissions of other toxic heavy metals like nickel and selenium, as well as on arsenic, acid gases, cyanide and other carcinogenic chemicals routinely emitted by the burning of fossil fuels — for the first time in the history of the U.S.

“By cutting emissions that are linked to developmental disorders and respiratory illnesses like asthma, these standards represent a major victory for clean air and public health ” and especially for the health of our children,” Administrator Jackson stated.

The risk of neurological disorders to America’s unborn children by mercury and other toxic emissions was documented at a November 30, 2011 U.S. Senate Staff Briefing hosted by Sen. Robert P. Casey, Jr (PA), the National Association of Evangelicals, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Evangelical Environmental Network. Cynthia F. Bearer, MD PhD, Chief of the Division of Neonatology, Dept. of Pediatrics, University of Maryland Hospital for Children outlined the toxins, including mercury (Hg++) she looks for when examining newborns exhibiting neurological disorders.

Rev. Mitch Hescox President of the Evangelical Environmental Network, spoke at the briefings and MATS ceremony and pointed out that the MATS were “over 20 years in the making.” “We are glad this moment has finally arrived, our unborn children and infants deserve it!” he declared. In his meetings with officials and in public appearances, Rev. Hescox boldly proclaims that evangelical Christians believe life is sacred and that human life begins at conception. He explains that it is this biblical “pro-life” belief, coupled with an evangelical believer’s commitment to Christ, that compels them to work to protect the weakest members of society, the unborn, and to ensure their right to the “abundant life” that Jesus offers.

Various secular media reported on the support of MATS by evangelical Christians. Public Radio International (PRI) included a segment on Living on Earth, and chose to post and make their full audio interview with Rev. Hescox available.

When MATS were proposed in mid-March, 2011, officials such as John Bachman who worked for the EPA’s Office of Air Quality Planning for 30 years, pointed out that the fossil fuel industry-funded lobby efforts, political in-fighting and resultant decades-long delay in proposing toxic emissions standards has “cost thousands of lives.”

According to law, the EPA actively sought public feedback, regional public hearings were held, and the public comment period was extended to 140 days. More than 900,000 comments were received. Full review required an additional 30-day extension before the MATS were issued on December 16.

That these MATS were “over 20 years in the making” actually reflects back to the first legislation involving air pollution, The Air Pollution Control Act of 1955. Additional Clean Air measures were passed in 1963, 1967 and 1970. It was Republican President Richard Nixon, and his Special Message to the Congress on Environmental Quality on February 20, 1970, that really moved the Clean Air ball down the political playing field. In his speech President Nixon stated this about Stationary-Source Pollution:

Industries, power plants, furnaces, incinerators — these and other so-called ‘stationary-sources’ add enormously to the pollution of the air…. Such pollution can quite literally make breathing hazardous to health, and can cause unforeseen atmospheric and meteorological problems as well…. Air is no respecter of political boundaries: a community that sets and enforces strict standards may still find its air polluted from sources in another community or another state.

In this February Special Message, President Nixon referenced that his Advisory Council on Executive Organization, headed up by Mr. Roy Ash, would be making recommendations to him by April. One of the Ash Council recommendations was for consolidation of regulatory protection and enforcement authority over matters related to the environment. The 1970 Ash Council Memo was prophetic in nature and predicted the “The Environmental Crisis” we are facing today:

Pollution is essentially a by-product of our vastly increased per-capita consumption, intensified by population growth, urbanization, and changing industrial processes. In the coming years, problems of environmental degradation will rise exponentially.

While our population will increase from 200 to 260 million by the year 2000, pollution will increase much more rapidly. Even if 50 percent of the nation’s electric generating capacity is nuclear-powered by the year 2000, pollutants from fossil-fuel generations will double by 1980 and redouble by 2000.

At the same time, our demand for fresh water will increase from 350 to 800 billion gallons a day — considerably exceeding the dependable supply of fresh water now available, some 650 billion gallons daily. More and more clean water will have to be retrieved from progressively dirtier waterways.

The enormous future needs for land, minerals, and energy require that the protection of our environment receive a powerful new impetus. In this, the nation will be on the “horns of a dilemma.” The economic progress which we have come to expect, or even demand, has almost invariably been at some cost to the environment.

Various measures, including the National Environmental Policy Act which established the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), were swiftly passed by Congress. Richard Nixon created the EPA on May 2, 1971. This agency was specifically mandated to implement the Clean Air Act of 1970. Amendments calling for protection from mercury and other heavy metal toxins were signed into law by George H. W. Bush in 1990.

“The nation will be on the ‘horns of a dilema.’” (Ash Council Memo, 1970)

Fortunately, while waiting for federal action since 1990, regulations similar to the MATS have been initiated by more than a dozen states, resulting in the installation of “scrubbers” by about half of the nation’s energy-producing coal and oil utilities. Clean utility operators are calling their “dirty” peers forward in implementation of the new and reasonable standards.

While the MATS are projected to cost non-compliant utilities $10.6 billion by 2016, agency analysts project that the lowered toxic emissions will save $59 billion in annual health costs, preventing 11,000 premature deaths a year, debilitating heart and lung conditions, and lost workdays.

“On the whole, industry can comply in a timely and cost-effective manner.” (Michael Bradley, Executive Director, Clean Energy Group)

Last-minute negotiations between the White House and EPA added a provision for extensions to power plant operators who apply for a waiver and demonstrate that they cannot meet the MATS three to four year deadline. Michael Bradley, Executive Director of the Clean Energy Group, testified at MATS hearings that, “on the whole, industry can comply in a timely and cost-effective manner.”

Already-compliant utility executives, such as Ralph Izzo of New Jersey’s largest electric utility, Public Service Enterprise Group, said the MATS were “long overdue” and that the new standards provide enough flexibility to allow all power generators to come into compliance without any threat to the nation’s power grid. Contrary to scare tactics by MATS opponents, leading electric grid officials are assuring U.S. citizens that “no lights will go out.”

Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) decried the MATS as a “thinly veiled electricity tax,” and said that they are part of an Obama administration “war on affordable energy.” Prominent Republican members of Congress fiercely opposed the MATS and are declaring that they will counter the regulations in Congress. Some utility heads said that they will challenge the MATS in court.

The oldest coal power plants in the U.S. have been spewing out mercury and other toxins for 90 years. Public awareness and scientific data regarding pollution has been building for almost a century. Earlier Clean Air standards have removed lead and toxins from gasoline and automobile exhaust. Work on mercury standards was set aside in the Clinton administration so that the industry emissions of nitrogen and sulfer oxides causing acid rain could be curbed through, ironically, a successful cap-and-trade program spearheaded by Republicans as they controlled Congress.

And now, at the close of 2011, even though huge sums of money were put into campaigns and behind rhetoric to make mercury and toxic emissions look innocuous and spin distortion that the MATS and cleanup would be “disastrous for jobs,” another giant is falling.

We are at a positive tipping-point. Significantly, more conservatives are calling for conservation. Corporate corruption can be curbed and environmental degradation can be mitigated and even reversed. America can still regain moral leadership in the international community — once again by example.

Some angry, shrill voices call for the abolishment of the EPA and decry the collaborative efforts of Evangelical Christians, Roman Catholics, and others in the Church who are standing and battling together against abortion, euthanasia, slavery and sex-trafficking, lack of religious freedom, racism, environmental degradation, climate crisis, threats to public health, and a host of other ills. Some say that the meaning of being “pro-life” is being “obscured.”

Just the opposite is true. Biblically, being “pro-life” is far more than being “anti-abortion.” The Evangel, “abundant life” Kingdom message of Jesus Christ, Savior of the world, is being unveiled and actualized. “You will know them by their fruits,” Christ declared. (Matthew 7:16)

The Church is called to be authentically and totally pro-life. If we were really “getting it,” then abortion would not be happening among so many “Christians,” and there would be few rather than millions of foster children left to adopt in the U.S. The Church could be taking over health care, or at least starting new hospitals. Thank God for some new Christian clinics and at least a token concern for the handicapped. We each often fall far short of being “pro-life.”

This MATS protective victory from toxic poisoning for mothers and their unborn children is evidence that the Holy Spirit, the Parakletos, “He who draws alongside to comfort and help,” is mightily at work! The Lord is restoring the full meaning and requirements to being “pro-life.”

As 2011 ends, we pray that “the meekness of wisdom” and “wisdom from above” (James 3:13-18) might be granted, enter in, and prevail. Christ, our Hope, stands smiling with arms outstretched before us on the 2012 horizon.

Soli Deo Gloria! For the Glory of God Alone!


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