Mercury rising

Photo By David Robert The mercury-tainted Carson River is the only Nevada site on the nation’s list of worst environmental messes.

The article was released on Feb. 16, 2005, and almost no one noticed. It was called “Mercury in Perspective,” and if its authors didn’t argue that mercury is good for you, they didn’t stop much short of that.

The 33-page article made a big splash in special interest circles like the tuna industry and environmental groups but got little attention in the mainstream. There was one Associated Press story, then the report sank like a stone from view.

But the more recent abortive adventure of its authors, U.S. Reps. Richard Pombo and James Gibbons, in trying to open up public lands to private ownership under the guise of mining law reform has made another look at their earlier initiative useful.

Mercury is a naturally occurring substance released into the air by coal burning. It can enter the food chain almost entirely through fish. In that process, it is converted by bacteria from a somewhat benign, non-organic elemental mercury into a more toxic, organic methylmercury. Pregnant women are generally considered most at risk, since their children could be born with neurological problems.

The Pombo/Gibbons article on mercury was issued on Feb. 16, 2005, it was leaked ahead of that date, however, prompting the AP report. Subtitled “Fact and Fiction About the Debate Over Mercury,” it argued that

• Mercury is natural.

• U.S. power plants account for less than a percent of worldwide mercury emissions.

• Mercury emissions have declined sharply.

• Mercury levels in fish are unchanged or lower than in earlier years

• There is no evidence of harm to pregnant women or fetuses from mercury in fish.

• Eating fish is beneficial.

• Scientific research has not proven a link between power plants and mercury in fish.

• An EPA threshold for mercury is based solely on a single inadequate test of children.

Photo By David Robert U.S. Rep. James Gibbons, who grew up in Nevada during a time when rented scientists argued that atomic fallout is harmless, is coauthor of an article that now says much the same thing about mercury.

“Environmental organizations have shamelessly used [U.S] fish advisories to further their political agenda and have created the false impression that U.S. anthropogenic mercury emissions are increasing. Their ads are filled with misleading information and have contributed to a sharp decline in domestic fish consumption.

“Scaring people away from consuming fish is creating a public health crisis in its own right. Fish is an important part of a healthy diet,” the article says.

Nevada scientist Glenn Miller read the Pombo/Gibbons article, examined its footnotes, and then said, “Mercury is a potent neurotoxin. It causes birth defects and kidney problems. It’s one of the most insidiously toxic metals that we’ve released into the environment.”

How could there be such a disparity in views when the scientific literature is available to both sides?

It’s difficult to know exactly what to call the Pombo/Gibbons epistle. It’s not a congressional report. It hasn’t been approved or adopted by any congressional committee or house. It is signed only by Pombo and Gibbons. It’s not a scientific study—there is no original research, only synopsizing of others’ work. It is a polemic. It contains attacks on groups and defenses of political stances that would be in no scientific paper. So we’ll opt for calling it an article.

How much Gibbons and Pombo had to do with actually writing the article is in doubt. The Associated Press has reported that it was “written by aides to the committee’s majority Republicans.” (Gibbons declined to be interviewed for this story.) In fact—and this may be troubling for Gibbons, who has a history of plagiarism—science reporter Chris Mooney suggests that two of the graphs in the Pombo/Gibbons article were lifted from a paper produced by the right wing Center for Science and Public Policy.

The reaction—where the report was noticed—was predictable. It was touted by groups like the U.S. Tuna Foundation and the Colorado Mining Association. Among critics of mercury policy, the reaction was blistering. The scientific community took little notice of the article since it was far out of the mainstream of science and mostly selectively recycled previous research.

David Burney of the Tuna Foundation: “The findings of this report are essential so that policy makers and the public can separate fact from hype when it comes to mercury levels in fish. Americans need to know that fish is a safe and very healthy food and that the amount of mercury in canned tuna and most other types of commonly eaten seafood is far below any level of concern. That is what the report by Resources Committee Chairman Pombo and Resources Subcommittee Chairman Gibbons makes plain, which is why I hope its findings will be communicated widely.”

Fortunately, that did not happen.

To the claim that the United States accounts for less than one percent of global mercury emissions, the Sierra Club’s Ed Hopkins suggested a less global look: “In fact, in 1997, the EPA itself submitted a study to Congress estimating that 66 percent of the mercury deposited in the U.S. comes from domestic sources, and roughly half of that comes from coal-fired power plants.

In the American Prospect, Mooney described the report as a case of stacking the deck. Pombo and Gibbons, he wrote, cited industry-funded studies that supported their viewpoint and ignored studies that didn’t.

“In fact, it’s a misleading, contrarian pamphlet aimed at convincing Americans that, despite everything they may have heard, mercury levels in fish aren’t dangerous, and U.S.-based mercury emitters aren’t a significant part of the problem. In order to achieve this feat, the Pombo report has to run roughshod over much of what we know about mercury risks from reliable sources like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Instead, the report turns to industry and think-tank opinion. Of its 59 references, 14 cite industry sources like the Edison Electric Institute and Electric Power Research Institute or conservative think tanks.”

The article emphasizes some buzzwords repeatedly, like naturally occurring and peer review. It’s true than mercury is a natural substance, and from that, Pombo and Gibbons seem to have concluded that it should be placed in the same category with dandelion tea and organic foods. However, there are plenty of natural but unsafe substances, and natural mercury can be very dangerous. The fact that mercury is naturally occurring is no protection from its dangers and is a so-what point.

Blinded by pseudo-science
Whoever wrote the Pombo/Gibbons article went through the scientific literature and cherry-picked whatever supported the thesis that had been decided at the outset. This can be shown by examining a central contention in the article.

Photo By David Robert U.S. Rep. Richard Pombo of California is known as an outspoken anti-environment lawmaker. He has been Gibbons’ copilot on at least two initiatives, an effort to sell off public lands and an article on the relative harmlessness of mercury.

It is well known that, for reasons that are unclear, some people can ingest mercury and have it pass through their systems with no ill effect, while others experience serious harm. As a result, the allowable “reference dose” (RfD) set by regulators must be keyed to those who are harmed.

In their article, Pombo and Gibbons emphasize two studies of populations, in the Faroe Islands and the Seychelles Islands, that consume large amounts of fish. The Faroe study showed significant damage experienced by its residents and the Seychelles study showed no damage. Pombo and Gibbons then pit the two studies against each other, find reasons to discreditthe Faroe study, and treat the Seychelles study as the final word.

To do this, they had to exclude all other studies with results similar to the Faroe study. There was no reason to include or exclude studies agreeing with the Seychelles study. There aren’t any.

And, while Pombo and Gibbons keep throwing the term peer review around left and right, they excluded the biggest peer review on mercury of all. It was held by the National Academy of Sciences in 1999-2000. The NAS surveyed a far broader range of studies than Pombo and Gibbons cited and reached the opposite conclusion. It specifically found that the Faroe study, because its conclusions were supported by other studies, was more compelling than the Seychelles study, which stood alone in its findings: “However, because there is a large body of scientific evidence showing adverse neurodevelopmental effects, including well-designed epidemiological studies, the committee concludes that an RfD [reference dose] should not be derived from a study, such as the Seychelles study, that did not observe any associations with MeHg [methylmercury].”

The Seychelles study, in other words, is an exception to the broad range of mercury studies. Pombo and Gibbons treated it as the rule.

Nor did they stop there. On page 22 of their article, they support their claim that there is no evidence of mercury danger during pregnancy with a quote from Dr. Gary Myers: “We do not believe that there is presently good scientific evidence that moderate fish consumption is harmful to the fetus.” Myers headed that same anomalous Seychelles study.

Mooney, a former editor of the American Prospect, has frequently criticized Gibbons, who he calls a follower of Lysenkoism. (Trofim Denisovich Lysenko was a Ukraine agronomist who subordinated U.S.S.R. agricultural policy to Communist Party needs, often in flat violation of scientific research and sound agriculture. He won praise from Stalin for elevating ideology over science but nearly destroyed agriculture in the Soviet Union.)

Mooney is also critical of Gibbons’ activism in the “sound science” movement—an effort to add government administrative requirements to the scientific method, thus making scientists jump through government hoops that delay findings. Mooney points out that the tobacco companies used to call for “sound science” back when they were trying to obscure the link between tobacco and cancer. (It is useful, out of respect for the language, to point out that “sound science,” like “true fact,” is a redundancy—if it’s not sound, it’s not science.)

Penn State science expert Rustam Roy has told USA Today, “Sound science is just a political buzzword used to denigrate somebody else’s best science in a conflicted area.”

(At one point, after a Mooney article critical of the sound-science effort appeared in the Washington Post, Gibbons and U.S. Rep. Chris Cannon posted a denunciation of Mooney on Cannon’s Web site. Among other things, it referred to the reporter as “an English graduate with no background in science.” Mooney joked, “Ouch.” University of Nevada, Reno scientist Miller points out, “Neither Congressman Gibbons nor Congressman Pombo are toxicologists.”)

It’s hard to imagine today’s Congress and president allowing some of the great benchmarks of health care and ecology through the legislative process. In 2004, Russell Train, who headed the EPA under presidents Nixon and Ford, said he was never subjected to the kind of political pressure experienced by EPA chiefs today. That prompted the Boston Globe to point out, “Nixon’s decision to accept the scientific evidence behind the Clean Air Act of 1970, which he signed, prevented more than 200,000 premature deaths and millions of cases of respiratory and cardiovascular disease, according to the EPA. Policy makers, in Congress or the White House, will not be able to make sound decisions if they do not have access to the best information independent researchers can provide.”

Democrats, too, are capable of rejecting science when its findings are inconvenient. Longtime Nevada Assembly Speaker Joe Dini is a Democrat and is contemptuous of the science that says chlorofluorocarbon compounds in aerosol propellants are an environmental hazard. The Assembly once voted down legislation to curb the use of CFCs in Nevada, and Dini once personally told scientist John Rowland—who won the Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking work on CFC dangers—that he didn’t believe Rowland’s findings. But Mooney, author of The Republican War On Science, says opposition to uncomfortable scientific truths is part of the structure of GOP leadership but not of the Democrats'.

Can Gibbons separate truth from myth?
For Gibbons, running for governor of Nevada, the Pombo/Gibbons article raises questions of how he would govern. As governor, he would have plenty of mercury issues on his plate, and it is important to ask how he would deal with them if he doesn’t believe in the dangers of mercury.

Chief executives must often deal with public policy myths. Parents are moving their children from public to private schools. Social Security is about to go broke. Global warming doesn’t exist. There’s a link between breast cancer and abortion.

Photo By David Robert Scientist Glenn Miller, active in trying to increase Nevada’s regulation of mercury, says the medical community has no doubt of the danger posed by the substance.

Governors need to be able to see through this kind of folklore. Otherwise, the consequences can be serious, as was seen during the period of school shootings.

In the late 1990s there was a series of school shootings in places like Pearl, Miss., West Paducah, Ky., Jonesboro, Ark., and—most highly publicized—Columbine High School outside Littleton, Colo. Given heavy and often irresponsible news coverage, the shootings created an impression that school violence is rampant and generated calls for more spending on school security measures. In fact, school remained statistically the safest place for children, of all the places they frequent. Governors, however, poorly informed about school violence, proposed all kinds of policies that drained hundreds of thousands of scarce education dollars from the classroom or that did nothing about violence, or both. One governor, James Gilmore of Virginia, even proposed elimination of after-school programs, which are shown to prevent violence.

In Nevada, public-policy myths have often affected where the state puts its money. In one legislature, news coverage of gang problems around Nevada was so heavy and inaccurate that minor gang problems attracted major legislation.

On the other hand, in 1999, Gov. Kenny Guinn was faced with a major public policy myth, and he faced it down. The myth was a claim of a legal requirement that Nevada’s share of the tobacco settlement must be used for health care costs. In fact, there was and is no such requirement—the tobacco dollars are unencumbered general fund dollars for use in any way a legislature sees fit. But the myth was so powerful and widely believed that state legislators were planning to put much of the money into health care programs. The whole tobacco settlement was in danger of being hijacked by health care lobbyists who had helped spread the myth.

Guinn successfully proposed that half the tobacco money be devoted to education—specifically, scholarships for Nevada high-school graduates. He still faced frequent criticism that he had violated the mythical requirement.

Former Nevada Gov. Richard Bryan says governors have a unique position in the U.S. commonwealth. They have a forum that surpasses that of U.S. senators and representatives, if a governor has the leadership skills to use it. The forum of the governorship, Bryan says, is so dominant within states that it can be used to deepen public misinformation—or to correct it.

“It’s a forum that can be used to advocate, to alert, to warn, to mobilize public opinion for or against. … He is clearly—or she as the case may be—is the most visible, high-profile leader, in terms of those public policies that are in the state’s best interests and to alert citizens to those public policies that threaten or endanger the state in terms of its public health and safety or its economic well being or its security.”

But what happens if the governor has a stake in fostering misinformation, or even creates it himself?

As governor, Gibbons would preside over a state containing many mercury hazards:

· “Nevada still ranks as one of the major sources of mercury in the Western United States, even with the fairly substantial reductions that have gone on … probably the third largest state. I think we just went under California,” Glenn Miller says. “Texas and California are the number one and two states. But we’re number three west of the Mississippi in states for mercury release, and so I think this issue is particularly important for us to recognize that we generate a lot of mercury in the air. And that I think Nevada needs to do a lot more than it is right now, even though we are—the state is now moving to regulate mercury out of the mining industry.”

• The only Nevada site on the national superfund list—the list of the nastiest toxic sites—is a mercury site, the Carson River.

• Scientists suspect that alarmingly high mercury levels at Idaho’s Salmon Creek Reservoir are a product of four Nevada gold mines that annually emit more mercury into the air than 25 average coal-fired power plants.

• High mercury levels have been found in the Colorado River and Lake Mead.

• The corporation U.S. Ecology (formerly known as Nuclear Engineering Company), which is custodian of Nevada’s now-closed low level nuclear/chemical waste dump at Beatty, keeps trying to reopen the dump and deposit, among other things, mercury wastes.

Would Gibbons, as Nevada’s chief executive, fight for funding for the Carson River cleanup when he doesn’t believe the river’s mercury is a threat? Would he oppose U.S. Ecology’s plans to import mercury to the state, since he thinks it’s relatively harmless?

Miller says it’s a policy choice of protecting people or protecting commerce.

“There ends up being, I guess, an area of debate of, ‘Where should there be a risk accepted?’ And I think the medical community has made a decision over and over again that mercury is an incredibly problematic material, and whatever we can do to minimize the amount of mercury exposure is appropriate. And that’s the basis of the decision to reduce mercury from power plants. And I agree with that decision. But I think it’s also the case that this is going to translate into some higher level of cost. And that’s part of this public debate that is going on as to how much risk we are willing to debate and at what cost. And in that sense, I think Congressman Gibbons and Congressman Pombo are making the argument of dollars versus risk, of going the way of perhaps not taking as strong of a stand in protection of health and more of a stand in protection of the power industry, as far as reducing costs … with the recognition that all of those costs do get translated down to the consumer.”

At the time of the release of the Pombo/Gibbons article, Gibbons himself chose to describe the choice in very stark terms: “With a more restrictive, unnecessary regulation, we could see a large portion of this country’s coal supplies become useless.”

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About Dennis Myers 1397 Articles
Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely Nevada, a children’s history textbook, and a contributor to the books The Mythical West and Covering the Courts in Nevada. In September, 2020, he was inducted into the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame.