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Mercury battle is green vs. green

| Sunday, July 16, 2006

A three-year war of wills between two of Pennsylvania's most politically powerful women could crescendo this fall in the debate over mercury pollution.

On one side stands Kathleen McGinty, the state Department of Environmental Protection chief and Al Gore disciple who plans to hold a public hearing here July 25 on proposed regulations to restrict pollution from mercury, a toxin that can impede the development of children.

On the other is state Sen. Mary Jo White, a Venango County Republican and former oil executive who has championed the federal government's less stringent mercury reduction plan.

"I think this is a potent mix of rough-and-ready science and raw power politics converging," said Mike Young, a managing partner of the Dauphin County public opinion research firm Michael Young Strategic Research. "Underlying the argument and the furor are the economic impacts of more aggressive mercury regulations, which are driving the debate and turning it into a political firecracker."

On the floor of the state Senate last month, White won a battle in her ongoing political war with McGinty.

While McGinty and the DEP worked to draft mercury pollution regulations calling for a 90 percent reduction in pollution by 2015, White convinced the Senate to approve her plan -- demanding an 86 percent reduction by 2018 -- by a margin of 40 to 10 on June 20.

The key difference between the two plans is that White's bill allows power companies to "trade" pollution credits with distant states -- enabling Pennsylvania's plants to continue polluting while paying plants elsewhere to cut their emissions more than required. The idea is that the two plants would balance each other out on a national scale. McGinty's regulations would not permit this.

If White's bill makes it through the House with a veto-proof majority, McGinty's public hearings and draft regulations would become moot.

"This is not the most deep-cutting piece of legislation, in terms of its economic impact," said Chris Borick, a professor of political science at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. "If you want to go after much more widespread environmental policies dealing with clean air issues, or suburban sprawl and development issues -- which have a bigger price tag in terms of economic growth -- I would say the difficulty getting tougher mercury regulations is a bad harbinger."

White and McGinty have a lot in common. Both are married mothers of three with law degrees. They don't agree on how to balance a healthy environment and a strong job market.

In interviews, the women refrained from personal attacks, choosing instead to assail the merits of the other's arguments.

"I think we should have had a more honest debate," White said. "I think that a lot of the data they're using is misleading. I think it is not being presented in a fair and straightforward manner."

McGinty said, "I think that there's been a lot of misinformation out there and, in some respects, senators were led to believe they were voting for an effective mercury-control program. That's not the case."

Said Borick: "They're two of the most powerful women in state politics in Pennsylvania, and therefore, you might imagine that they share some common interests. However, I think the issue of mercury emissions has exposed some deep ideological and political differences between the two."

Confirmation of a problem

Sparks flew almost as soon as McGinty, 43, a Philadelphia native, stepped onto Pennsylvania's political stage.

White, 64, delayed McGinty's confirmation in 2003 with extended hearings, charging that McGinty, a one-time protege of former Vice President Gore was "out of the mainstream" on environmental policy.

McGinty chaired the White House Office of Environmental Policy and served as a senior environmental adviser to President Clinton.

"Kathleen is highly respected and regarded; she has national prominence," Young said. "She is widely known for her environmental advocacy views."

One of White's biggest gripes was McGinty's role in creating the 1.8 million-acre national Grand Staircase Escalante monument in southern Utah in 1996. The monument put an enormous coal seam under federal protection, preventing it from being mined.

Environmentalists pushed for the monument, and Clinton established it using a 1906 law to bypass Congress. In a handwritten note to Gore, McGinty said that "the enviros have $500,000 to spend, either for us or against us" -- referring to campaign contributions that later were spent as soft money on behalf of the Clinton-Gore ticket.

U.S. Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, said he was kept in the dark about the monument. He testified before Congress in 2001 that he asked McGinty for a map four days before the announcement, and she told him there wasn't one -- something McGinty acknowledged in her confirmation hearings.

On the eve of the monument's announcement, a map appeared in The New York Times.

During her confirmation hearing, McGinty testified she told Bennett that no map of the monument existed because a decision hadn't been made whether to create the monument.

McGinty won confirmation by the Pennsylvania Senate, but without the votes of White and seven others.

Working her way to the top

White came to Harrisburg after 19 years with Quaker State Corp., working her way up the male-dominated oil business to vice president for environment and government affairs.

A state senator since 1996, she chairs the Environmental Resources and Energy Committee and the Ethics and Official Conduct Committee.

"Mary Jo White is a respected, and certainly aggressive, senator," Young said. "She has taken a leadership role on a number of environmental issues in the Legislature."

Mercury pollution is mostly emitted from the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants. Among the states, Pennsylvania has the second-worst mercury pollution problem. Texas is first.

In February, Gov. Ed Rendell presented the draft mercury-reduction regulations written by the DEP -- spurring skirmishes on Web sites and in news releases.

"I've never seen the flurry of press releases and letters to the editor and editorials -- both sides are very active," said Nathan Willcox, a lobbyist for the Pennsylvania environmental group PennEnvironment.

What is the truth?

On its Web site, the DEP gives the "Truth About Toxic Mercury Pollution," presenting how mercury pollution impacts Pennsylvania's environment, people and jobs.

Almost half of White's press releases issued this year were about mercury, including one titled: "Senator White to DEP: Stop the Dishonesty."

Because environmental regulations often are viewed in Pennsylvania as a threat to jobs, politicians tend to be wary.

"The standard that the DEP is talking about would put a very difficult burden on our utility companies," said state Sen. John Pippy, R-Moon, who voted for White's bill.

The bill now is before the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee. McGinty acknowledged the lopsided Senate vote was disappointing, especially after she testified at two of three mercury-emission-reduction hearings organized by White and met with as many senators "as humanly possible."

Rendell promises a veto if White's bill gets through the House in its current form. The bill doesn't have the support of state Reps. William Adolph Jr., R-Delaware, and Camille George, D-Clearfield, who chair the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee. Both have said the state regulations should be tougher than the federal standards.

If McGinty can't get the Legislature to enact tougher mercury standards, the matter could surface in Rendell's re-election campaign this fall, Borick said.

"I can see the campaign pitch: 'We tried to address a major environmental issue in the state Legislature and were turned down. This is exactly why we need a change in party leadership.' ''

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