MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) – Fish caught in northern New England’s lakes still contain unhealthy levels of mercury and a new Bush administration policy will worsen the problem, two environmental groups said Thursday.

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group and its state affiliates joined the Mercury Policy Project in releasing their annual update on a long-festering issue, taking aim at the “Clear Skies Initiative” unveiled by the White House earlier this year.

Even as the groups released their report Thursday, the Bush administration revealed in congressional testimony that it was seeking to relax standards for mercury emissions that the Clear Skies Initiative already had relaxed.

Randall Kroszner, a member of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, told a Senate committee that the administration would use for mercury a system in which power plants could sell pollution allowances to one another – similar to that already in place to reduce acid rain.

Kroszner told the panel that the administration expected to achieve a 70 percent reduction in mercury emitted by power plants in the next 16 years.

That compares with a standard previously established in the Clean Air Act that set a deadline of 2008 – rather than 2018 – for power plants to install the best available technology, achieving mercury reductions estimated at 90 percent.

“The Bush administration’s air pollution plan would allow three times more mercury pollution from power plants than the existing Clean Air Act,” said a statement from PIRG and the Mercury Policy Project.

Michael Bender, director of the Mercury Policy Project, said that because of the prevailing westerly winds that blow air pollution eastward, northern New England “is the tailpipe of the nation when it comes to mercury pollution.”

All three northern New England states, like their counterparts around the country, have repeatedly issued advisories urging people, particularly young children and pregnant women, to limit their consumption of several different types of fish.

Mercury is a toxic metal that, when ingested, can lead to nervous system damage, especially in children. Health problems include attention and language deficits, memory, visual and motor function problems.

The Vermont Health Department has been working with city and town health officers to post signs at state fishing access areas warning anglers of the mercury problem. Vermont also requires labeling of fluorescent lights and other equipment containing mercury, to warn that they should be disposed of as hazardous waste and not simply sent to landfills.

Eric Palmer, director of fisheries for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, said no one had ever done a study to determine whether the recreational fishing industry in the state had been hurt by the mercury health advisories.

He said since efforts to reduce mercury pollution began a decade ago, the rate of growth of mercury in the environment has slowed. But he said mercury continues to build up, in part because it is so long-lasting.

He said moderate consumption of fish remains a good thing from a nutritional standpoint, but added that, “Fish consumption advisories could become more stringent in the future.”

He said of the Bush administration’s proposed actions on mercury emissions, “It certainly won’t help to reduce the mercury problem. If anything it will exacerbate it.”

AP-ES-06-05-03 1837EDT

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