Mercury rising

February 18, 2011 

In one of history's sorrier twists, Republicans in the U.S. House are down on the Environmental Protection Agency, way down. This week they're trying to gut its powers to regulate pollutants in the air, on farmland and in water. Yet the national movement to protect our environment had its roots in the heyday of Republican Theodore Roosevelt, and Richard Nixon helped create the EPA.

So why all the animosity now? Overreaching regulations that stifle business, agency opponents say. However, the EPA generally proposes rules that are required by law - and common sense. The more we know about ill-health in humans and ill-effects on the natural world, the more obvious it is that industrial processes must be regulated for the common good. Some pollution is inevitable, but the government is right to put a lid on it.

A particular example directly affects Eastern North Carolina. Titan America wants to build a big new cement plant at Castle Hayne, near Wilmington. There is both local support - the plant would create jobs - and local opposition. Essentially, cement plants are coal burners, with all the attendant air pollutants, including toxic mercury. The Titan issue has been in and out of the courts, with final studies and permits still pending.

One promising development came last year. The EPA issued new rules for cement plants that would, if the Titan plant is built, require it to meet much tighter air quality standards than at present.

But now those new rules are in the House GOP's cross-hairs. The cement industry says the limits would cause some plants to close, even though an EPA analysis found that savings in health-related costs would far outweigh losses. The prime mover in seeking to block the rules is Rep. John Carter of Texas, a state rich in cement plants.

Simply put, the old rules were outdated and likely harmful to health. If the EPA is stripped of its ability to enforce new and better ones, it would be wrong to approve a Texas-size cement plant for the watery Wilmington region, where the Lower Cape Fear River already contains troublesome levels of mercury. President Barack Obama has pledged to veto the House assault on the EPA if such a bill ever comes to his desk. Make that a concrete promise.

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