Prodded by Environmentalist Lawsuit, EPA FinalIy Issues Overdue Mercury Air Pollution Study

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finally issues an overdue study on air emissions of mercury.


Howard Fox (EAJUS-DC) (202) 667-4500

Responding to a court order in a successful lawsuit by Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today finally issued an overdue study on air emissions of mercury. Under the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act, the agency had been required to issue the study in November 1994, but had announced its intention to delay issuance until March 1999. After further consideration, EPA agreed to move the issuance date up to today, and that agreement was signed by the court on December 8, 1997.

“EPA was pressured into delaying the study by powerful industries and their special interest friends in government,” said Howard Fox of Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, which represented Sierra Club in the lawsuit. “Industry didn’t like the conclusions, so it tried to keep EPA from finalizing them.”

Mercury is a toxic chemical that can cause neurological problems even in small doses, especially in developing fetuses. Human emissions of mercury come primarily from electric power generation (especially from coal-fired power plants) and incineration (which burns light fixtures and other materials containing mercury). Once in the atmosphere, mercury can travel long distances, and eventually finds its way into fish, which is then consumed by humans and wildlife. Approximately thirty-five states have fish advisories warning about consumption of mercury-containing fish tissue. In addition, mercury is suspected of harming wildlife, such as waterfowl.

Originally, EPA had proposed to settle the suit by issuing the study in December 1995, then proposed a second settlement with a release date of April 1996. Representatives of the electric power and commercial fishing industries pressured to delay the study, and EPA backed out of both settlements before they could be finalized.

In 1996, EPA said the study should be delayed until April 1999, so that two ongoing studies of fish-consuming communities (one addressing the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean, and the other the Faeroe Islands in the North Atlantic) could be finalized and the results incorporated into EPA’s study. The EPA Science Advisory Board subsequently concluded that “the major findings of the draft report are well supported by the scientific evidence,” and EPA then agreed to move the release date up to December 19, 1997.

“The idea that an unlawfully delayed study should be further delayed to await the generation of additional scientific data represented a new frontier in bureaucratic delay,” said Fox. “Congress wanted EPA to issue the study promptly based on the data at hand, not to wait for the Godot of scientific certainty that will never arrive.”

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