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POWER PLANTS ACTUALLY DISCHARGE VERY LITTLE MERCURY

Molly Ivins, like many Americans, is concerned about health issues related to mercury in the atmosphere. She's so concerned that she's screaming. Unfortunately, if you're screaming about the wrong things (even if your intentions are good), you're just making noise.

That's the problem with the debate about health concerns related to mercury in the atmosphere. Regrettably, some special-interest groups that are opposed to using coal to generate electricity have seized upon the legitimate health concerns rising from methylmercury exposure, particularly among women of childbearing age, to promote their agenda of removing coal from America's energy mix.

Here are the facts. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, nearly all methylmercury exposure in the United States occurs through eating fish and shellfish. Methylmercury is the toxic form of mercury that is created when mercury interacts with certain types of bacteria, usually in water. The levels of methylmercury in fish and shellfish depend on what they eat, how long they live and how high they are in the food chain.

Research shows, however, that the vast majority of people's fish consumption does not cause a health concern. In fact, risk for most Americans in the at-risk category is very low, and studies by the Centers for Disease Control have never found anyone in the at-risk category who had toxic levels of methylmercury.

A report released earlier this month by the Center for Science and Public Policy suggests that methylmercury has existed in fish and consumers of fish (both human and fish predators) throughout history, due to naturally occurring sources of mercury, which are just as likely, if not more so, to transform into methylmercury. In fact, U.S. utility emissions account for less than 1 percent of the global mercury in the air.

The EPA has found from its research that there are probably no health benefits associated with reducing utility mercury emissions by more than 50 percent. The EPA's current rule, however, will cut utility mercury emissions by 70 percent. Going beyond 70 percent reductions in the near term would force a substantial reduction in coal usage, thereby driving up consumer costs for electricity and decreasing household income. Those unintended consequences would far outweigh the intended health benefits.

The coal-based electricity industry strongly supports Clear Skies, legislation currently stalled in Congress, which is an even stronger approach to reducing emissions from power plants. As federal legislation, Clear Skies would reduce emissions faster than the EPA rule or the existing Clean Air Act because Clear Skies would not be subject to litigation delays.

Unfortunately, nine states and several environmental groups have announced that they are suing the EPA over its mercury rule. They are the same individuals who lobbied against the passage of the Clear Skies Act, and are now possibly further delaying clean air progress by litigating the EPA rule.

Joe Lucas is vice president of Americans for Balanced Energy Choices in Alexandria, Va.