EPA Criticized on Mercury Standards By Edward Walsh A day after the Environmental Protection Agency expressed "growing concern" over the number of women of child-bearing age who have dangerous levels of mercury in their blood, environmental groups accused the Bush administration yesterday of undercutting steps to reduce exposure to the toxic substance. Carol M. Browner, who was head of the EPA throughout the Clinton administration, said standards she developed under the Clean Air Act -- if allowed to take effect -- would go much further in reducing mercury emissions than would a "Clear Skies Initiative" President Bush has proposed. At a conference here, she suggested the administration's proposed policy was designed to protect the interests of major utilities and their coal-burning power plants, the nation's single largest source of man-made mercury emissions. "This is a serious problem," Browner said. "The science is there to address the problem. The law is on the books. This should not be about special deals for special interests." In a report released Monday, the EPA said that about 8 percent of U.S. women of child-bearing age (16 to 49) have at least 5.8 parts per billion of mercury in their blood, the level at which the EPA says there is an increased risk of harm to a fetus. Under Bush's proposal, mercury emissions would have to be reduced by 50 percent by 2010 and by 70 percent by 2018. According to the Clean Air Trust, which sponsored Browner's appearance yesterday, those reductions would mean there would be about 26 tons of mercury emissions in 2010 and 15 tons in 2018. By contrast, the group said, under the Clean Air Act's standards for power companies that Browner ordered in 2000, mercury emissions could be cut to about 5 tons a year by 2007. Clean Air Trust executive director Frank O'Donnell said those standards, due to take effect next year, would be repealed by enactment of Bush's initiative. He said the estimates of the effects of the two approaches to mercury emissions were presented by EPA officials in December 2001 to the Edison Electric Institute, the electric power industry's trade group. "The Bush plan is motivated by a desire to weaken and delay the current standards," O'Donnell said. "Tough standards will take effect in a couple of years if the Bush administration and its power company friends don't delay it." Joseph J. Martyak, EPA's chief spokesman, called the environmentalists' assertions inaccurate. He said the agency's presentation to the Edison Electric Institute was meant to be "illustrative," and was "not a prediction of what the mercury level will be set at under the Clean Air Act, because it hasn't been set yet." He said the mercury emissions standard under the process begun by Browner will not be proposed by the EPA until the end of this year. Martyak also suggested that reducing mercury emissions to 5 tons by 2007 was unrealistic. "There is no way you can get to 5 tons without driving the industry way over the top on the cost," he said. Scott H. Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, which represents six major power companies, said the environmentalists "overstate the case for precipitous action." "The Clear Skies approach makes sense compared to proposals that would require much steeper reductions in a much quicker time frame, because it allows the technology needed to reduce power-plant mercury emissions to be developed over the next few years," Segal said in a statement.