Brenda Bennett was beside herself.

“We’re building up a terrible situation,” said the executive director of the Learning Disabilities Association of Maine. “Look at the increase in special education costs. It’s no wonder they’re going up.”

Bennett is among those upset by the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s decision Tuesday to loosen some restrictions within the Clean Air Act on the release of mercury. The EPA itself estimates that each year 630,000 babies are at risk for lowered intelligence and learning problems due to mercury exposure in utero.

Under the rules issued Tuesday by the EPA, more than 450 coal-burning power plants will be allowed to release 48 tons of mercury annually from their smokestacks through 2009. The rules require reductions to 31.3 tons per year by 2010; 27.9 tons by 2015 and 24.3 tons by 2020.

That’s despite the fact that the emissions could be nearly eliminated, health and environmental officials say.

“The technology is available and in use today to protect our kids and reduce mercury emissions 90 percent by 2008,” said Brownie Carson, executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

Carson issued a scathing attack on the EPA and the Bush administration over the rules.

“The Environmental Protection Agency has dishonored its name and ignored its responsibility by allowing lax controls on the mercury pollution from coal-burning power plants that poison Maine children and wildlife,” he said.

“A dark cloud hangs over Washington, D.C. The Bush administration has ignored the advice of physicians, scientists and state officials, and chosen to let power plants generate three times more mercury pollution over the next 50 years than would be allowed under the Clean Air Act,” he said in a statement.

The changes had been included in Bush’s ill-fated Clean Skies Initiative. When that went nowhere, the EPA stepped up to advance the president’s position through rule making.

But even some Republicans are angry about the EPA’s actions.

“Unless every coal-fired power plant is required to reduce its emissions, dangerously high concentrations of mercury in Maine and other parts of the country will persist,” said Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine.

After Tuesday’s EPA action, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud said, “Mercury is a toxin that causes serious developmental problems in children and infants.”

Michaud, a Democrat from Maine, said the “EPA has turned its back on sound science and abandoned a bipartisan commitment to getting mercury out of the environment. This rule is bad for public health, bad for the environment, and bad for Maine. EPA cannot roll over and accept the fact that there will always be warnings on eating fish that we catch in Maine.”

Utilities, however, claim the EPA acted wisely because the phased-in emission reductions will remove tons of the element from the environment.

The EPA rules set maximums of allowable pollution levels, then lets utilities trade within those limits. Some companies can increase pollution while others can profit by selling their unused allowance.

Dan Riedinger, a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, said the EPA’s cap-and-trade approach is preferable to setting a single deadline for making technological improvements that, once met, gives “little or no incentive” to cut more pollution.

Scott Segal, who directs the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a consortium of utilities, said using market forces to control pollution would remove mercury from the nation’s air while providing stability for consumers and generators.

Mercury arrives in Maine on the prevailing westerly winds. It hitches the ride after being produced by coal-burning power plants in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states.

“The Bush administration’s proposal to trade mercury pollution between power plants absolutely fails to protect children’s health. They know it. We know it. Why are they lying to us?” asked Carson.

Bennett said the EPA’s move goes beyond politics; it endangers Maine’s children.

“We’re terribly disappointed by the shortsightedness of it,” she said. “Long-term, I fear what will happen.”

Besides the potential for scores of additional children suffering learning disabilities because of mercury poisoning, Bennett said the social costs will be enormous.

Affected youngsters will need more costly educational programs, she said, and also be more likely to find themselves in trouble with the juvenile justice system.

It could be avoided “for the price of one cup of coffee per household per month,” says Carson of utilities’ meeting cost estimates of Clean Air Act requirements to meaningfully reduce mercury emissions.

The cost in Maine, where electricity comes largely from gas-fired plants and hydroelectric sources, would be 4 cents a month added to the average household electric bill, he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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