Maine Sen. Susan Collins, using uncharacteristically strong language, has called for a face-to-face meeting with the head of the agency charged with protecting the nation’s environment to discuss its mercury stance.

“I am very concerned that, in developing the Clean Air Mercury Rule, the EPA failed to live up to the high standards required of an agency so vital to the well-being of our health and environment,” Collins wrote Thursday in a letter to Stephen Johnson, the agency’s acting administrator.

Johnson on March 15 signed the rule, which allows coal-burning utilities across the nation to spew tons of mercury annually into the air Americans breathe.

Mercury has been proven to cause learning and other disabilities in children. It’s absorbed by pregnant women in food and through the air, then passed on to their unborn children.

The EPA’s Inspector General’s Office has severely criticized the agency over its rule-making process regarding mercury emissions.

Dr. David Hunter, staff scientist for the Senate’s Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, which is headed by Collins, said the EPA “did not adequately” determine the effects of mercury on children.

Interviewed by telephone from Washington, Hunter said the EPA “ignored independent study” regarding mercury and children’s health, set a predetermined standard then developed data to support that standard, and allowed outside influence in developing the standards.

“The rule is horrible,” said Hunter, adding that the EPA failed in its charge to protect the nation’s health and environment.

“I am troubled,” wrote Collins in her letter to Johnson, by news reports concerning the IG findings “suggesting that important data on the benefits of controlling mercury emissions was withheld from the rulemaking process.

“I fail to see how the EPA can possibly maintain the appearance of propriety when a Harvard University study allegedly paid for and peer-reviewed by the EPA, and demonstrating a much higher level of health benefits than EPA’s official estimates, was apparently not even considered in the rulemaking process,” Collins continued.

The senator has proposed legislation that would limit mercury emissions to five tons by 2009. The EPA rule would limit mercury to 38 tons by 2010.

Hunter said the EPA has less than 90 days to respond to the IG’s findings. If it refuses to accept them and to take corrective steps, an independent panel will be seated to mediate the differences.

He and a Collins spokeswomen said Collins would likely not initiate an investigation on the EPA actions as was requested earlier Thursday by the Natural Resource Council of Maine.

The Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee would be the more appropriate panel to probe EPA actions, Hunter said.

In calling for hearings on the EPA’s rule-making process, NRCM Executive Director Brownie Carson called Collins “a champion on the mercury issue and leader in the protection of the environment.”

He said she is “uniquely positioned to get to the bottom on the EPA’s wrongdoing.”

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