Putting CreationCare.org’s Mercury Ads to the Test
by Chris Skates
Recently our western Kentucky airwaves have been bombarded with advertisements attacking Congressman Ed Whitfield. The ads, from an organization called CreationCare.org. wrongly accuse Congressman Whitfield of failure to protect the unborn (though he is staunchly anti-abortion) because he is allowing Kentucky coal fired power plants to “emit dangerous mercury pollution.” These ads are misleading at best and patently unfair to Congressman Whitfield.
We would not presume to question the motives of fellow Christians who are behind this ad campaign. We assume they share our ethical concern for our environment and desire to be good stewards of the natural world. However, we question some of their assumptions.
Assumption (1): Burning coal for the generation of electricity represents a threat to pregnant women and their unborn children. Like several other green activist groups, we believe that CreationCare has confused some of the data in EPA studies on mercury. They have likely confused what the agency calls the “Reference Dose” with “a dangerous level.”
EPA’s Reference Dose is intentionally set unrealistically low, we assume so that the agency can err on the side of caution. Here is how EPA arrived at this dose. First, it established the “Benchmark Dose” (BD): the “lowest threshold dose level” (85 parts per billion) that resulted in reduced scores on one particularly sensitive neurological test related to very subtle effects (but not on other neurological tests related to broader cognitive and intellectual measures). Understand: that was the lowest level with any detectable effect, no matter how subtle. Second, it added a “statistical safety factor” by adopting the lower limit (58 parts per billion) of the 95 percent confidence level for the BD as its “Benchmark Dose Lower Limit” (BMDL). Third and finally, for even greater safety’s sake, it added an “uncertainty factor” (to account for uncertainties in individual responses across the population) by dividing the BMDL by 10 to get what it called its Reference Dose: 5.8 parts per billion. (That proportion is analogous to the first 7-3/4 feet of a trip to the moon, or the first 5.8 seconds out of 31.7 years.) In short, EPA’s Reference Dose is multiples lower than necessary to ensure safety.
What’s more, multiple studies have called into question the connection between power plant emissions and mercury in fish. Mercury is a naturally occurring element, and natural causes have a much greater effect on the mercury present in fish. Therefore, the claims of these ads of a direct threat to the unborn from coal-fired power plants is at best greatly exaggerated and at worst demonstrably false.
Assumption (2): Draconian regulation on coal fired plants will be beneficial for western Kentucky. As stated above, mercury emissions from these plants have a minimal affect on a very small number of people. Yes, there are risks with emission of any amount of pollutant. Yet human health and well being in Kentucky are threatened far more by limiting access to affordable, reliable, electricity. In fact, even the EPA itself says implementing its proposed new mercury rule would have no discernible health benefits—but it would cost billions of dollars nationwide and force closure of some power plants that couldn’t be brought into compliance, thus forcing up electricity prices and weakening the nation’s electric grid.
This past summer was a hot one. Every year we hear of the poor and the elderly dying or being struck down by heatstroke. How much worse would this be if coal power is regulated out of business, making electricity rates “skyrocket,” as President Obama promised on the campaign trail? The Energy Information Administration estimates that it would cost well over $8.4 billion to obtain the lower mercury levels EPA is calling for.
Congressman Whitfield, through his service on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has simply voted to delay additional restrictions on mercury emissions until some of the ambiguity in these studies can be deciphered. He does not deserve the unfounded attacks in the Creation Care ads.
Chris Skates is an Adjunct Scholar with The Cornwall Alliance, A water chemistry supervisor at a power plant in southern Illinois, author of the novel Going Green: For Some It Has Nothing to Do with the Environment, and a member of Rosebower Baptist Church