Obama reverses Bush's rulings on mercury and toxic substances

A clear shift in environmental policy has taken place in the US under President Barack Obama, with tightened regulations and Bush-era legislation left firmly in the past.

After mere months at the helm, the Obama administration is distinguishing itself from Bush policies in many areas affecting public health and the environment. These range from pushing for a greenhouse gas cap-and-trade programme to forging ahead with regulations to control mercury emissions.

The Obama administration backed the first-ever global treaty to control mercury releases on 20 February 2009. Under the landmark decision, governments from over 140 countries agreed to begin negotiations on an international treaty addressing worldwide mercury emissions and discharges. The plan includes sharp reductions in the global supply of mercury, and measures to lower the amount of the material contained in products such as thermometers.

The Bush administration opposed international efforts to limit the use of mercury, which the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) itself identifies as a neurotoxin. But on 23 February, the US Supreme Court cleared the way for the new EPA to issue replacement regulations on mercury and other pollutants from US coal-fired power plants. The country’s highest court refused to consider an appeal by a lower federal court to overturn the previous EPA’s Clean Air Mercury Rule (CAMR), which allowed exemptions to the federal Clean Air Act for coal power plants. 

Court rulings 

Last year the lower court ruled that the EPA, under Bush, had violated the Clean Air Act by evading mandatory cuts in mercury pollution from coal- and oil-fired power plants. 

In late February, a federal appeals court then ruled that the Bush-era clean air standards were deficient, and sent them back to be revamped by the current EPA. During Bush’s tenure, the agency decided to keep annual airborne particulate standards at the same level, despite a recommendation from its Clean Air Scientific Advisory Council to strengthen the standard for long-term exposure from 15 micrograms per cubic metre of air to 12 to 14 micrograms per cubic metre. 

The court found that the EPA ’did not adequately explain’ why an annual level of 15 micrograms per cubic metre is sufficient to protect the public health and safeguard against short-term exposures and morbidity in vulnerable subpopulations. The court held that ’in several respects’ the EPA’s refusal to adopt stronger standards was ’contrary to law and unsupported by adequately reasoned decision-making’. 

Report card 

In a further about-turn, early March saw President Obama reinstate stronger reporting requirements for toxic chemical releases by US facilities to the country’s EPA.  

The provision, included in a government spending bill, reverses a Bush-era decision to raise by 900 per cent a waste emissions threshold that triggered stricter reporting requirements to the EPA’s Toxic Releases Inventory (TRI). Under the Bush administration, the cut-off rose from 500 pounds (227 kilograms) to 5000 pounds.

Major chemical company trade body the American Chemistry Council (ACC) supported the now defunct Bush policy change, which would have allowed many more chemical companies to submit a short form to the TRI programme, the EPA’s public database of toxic chemical release and waste management information reported every year.

’According to EPA’s own estimates, TRI reporting costs the regulated community about $650 million [?448 million] a year, and we believe that changes in the system that improved the quality of the data, maintained reporting requirements for covered chemicals, and produced reporting efficiencies are worthwhile,’ says Mike Walls, ACC’s vice president. ’We believe that there is significant value in the TRI programme and we would like to leverage that value while doing so in an efficient manner.’

He says many ACC member companies file the more detailed TRI form and would probably have continued to do so under the Bush legislation. In fact, ACC says most of its member companies have regularly been returning the detailed form since 2006.

The American Chemical Society (ACS) is pleased that the Obama administration is focusing on toxic substance reporting issues. 

’I think it bodes well that they intend to collect and use high-quality scientific information when making policy decisions,’ says ACS spokesperson Glenn Ruskin.

Obama budget 

Meanwhile, Obama has proposed a significant funding increase for the EPA in 2010. The agency would receive a 35 per cent boost under a blueprint budget proposal unveiled by the president on 26 February. The $2.7 billion bump would bring the agency’s budget to $10.5 billion, and is in addition to $7 billion that the EPA received in the recently enacted economic stimulus package, to be spent in 2009 and 2010. 

The White House’s EPA proposal includes a $19 million budget increase for a greenhouse gas emissions inventory, along with related activities to provide the data needed to implement a comprehensive climate change bill. It would also fund the agency’s operating budget at $3.9 billion - the highest level ever. 

’With these proposed resources, and the president’s strong environmental agenda, it should be overwhelmingly clear that EPA is back on the job,’ said the new head of the EPA, Lisa Jackson.  

Rebecca Trager, US correspondent for Research Europe