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Mercury is rising


LAST MONTH, a coalition of 11 states (quite a few led by Republican governors) filed suit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to stop the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from weakening rules governing mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants. It's a serious matter. Mercury has become of increasing concern because of the harm it can cause infants and young children.

Maryland, however, is not one of the states challenging the EPA.

The question is, why?

Environmental groups claim EPA rules that would allow power plants to buy pollution credits to avoid tougher emissions standards are an effort to weaken long-standing Clean Air Act standards. Not only is the compliance timetable too generous but the rules are also inherently unfair. Communities downwind from power plants that buy credits rather than reduce emissions are essentially out of luck. Under that scenario, what's the point of having any federal standard at all?

Yet Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has taken the unusual step of ordering Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. not to join these other states (California, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, New York and New Mexico) in the mercury lawsuit. The administration's response is laughable. Yes, the folks at the state Department of Environment say, they're concerned about the Bush administration's mercury policy, but they'd like to talk to EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson first. Apparently, nobody thought to chat with the EPA during the last two years when the rules were developed.

Just a few months ago, the Ehrlich administration opposed a state-level approach to reducing mercury - and several other pollutants - from power plants, claiming it was a federal issue. Now the governor seems to favor weakening the regulations governing out-of-state plants, too. No doubt this plays well with the energy lobby. Older coal-burning power plants are highly profitable, particularly if no one cares about the noxious pollutants they generate.

Make no mistake, the litigation will move forward without Maryland's involvement. But if Maryland, with its tradition of environmental stewardship and love for the Chesapeake Bay, doesn't care enough about the issue to fight the EPA, what message does that send? Mercury emissions end up in the water and in the fish we eat. EPA's own tests show most fish caught in this country are too laced with mercury to be safely eaten regularly by youngsters. Are we satisfied with that - and with the brain damage mercury can inflict on children? We shouldn't be. Not when the technology is available to reduce these emissions by 90 percent.

There's still time for Mr. Ehrlich to reconsider his position on power plant mercury emissions; the issue isn't going away. But it's also troubling to see how often Mr. Ehrlich won't stand up to polluters of any stripe. He may view that policy as pro-business, but it isn't. It's just anti-environment.

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