It’s the beginning of a new year, a time for reflecting on the previous year. This year, we don't have to look too far back to recognize one of the year’s pivotal struggles to protect children’s health. In fact, it reached its climax on New Year’s Eve in the mostly empty halls of our legislature. A weak bill that would have accomplished little itself and prevented future efforts to reduce our exposure to toxic mercury was stalled, thanks to the leadership of some very committed legislators including Senators Jamie Eldridge and Sonia Chang-Diaz and Representatives Ellen Story and Frank Smizik. These heroes recognized that passing this bill would land Massachusetts with the weakest bill of its kind in the country, and we thank them for standing up for our public health by stopping it.
That this bill nearly passed was egregious because of the implications for the health of our children and future generations, however, there’s more to the story. The way that it was pushed forward, in the final days of the session during a time that is normally reserved for only non-controversial issues, laid bare the too-often absence of true democracy in our legislative process. We thank these legislators for standing up for the belief that Massachusetts can and should do better both on protecting public health, and on governing democratically.
Massachusetts and New England are at the end of the tail pipe for the Atlantic seaboard, and so we are impacted by mercury emissions from downwind polluters as well as in-region sources. Mercury in our local waste stream, in products like thermostats and fluorescent lights, is an important source of the mercury that winds up in our air and water via leaking landfills and polluting trash incinerators.
To its credit, Massachusetts has been a historic leader in addressing our mercury crisis. Over the years, we have passed policies that restrict mercury through modern air pollution controls and phase out of many mercury containing products. However, the remaining mercury burden really matters. In 1998, the New England Governors passed a resolution that committed the region to the goal of “virtual elimination” of mercury emissions. This was based on the severity of the problem and the unique hazard that mercury represents. Mercury accumulates in our fish and aquatic environment, and ultimately in our bodies, without breaking down.
The most vulnerable, impacted populations are pregnant women and young children. Mercury is a proven neurotoxin that can create permanent brain damage, implicated as one of the contributors to our national epidemic of learning disabilities and behavioral disorders in children. So this seemingly small issue casts a big shadow on our children’s health and future potential.
The mercury lobby, particularly the manufacturers of these thermostats, opposes the kind of collection requirements that have passed in Maine, Vermont and other states that would remove this source of pollution from our waste stream permanently.
This weak bill was vocally opposed by many legislators and environmental groups. None the less, proponents brought it up for a vote in the House on a quiet day in August with no advance notice when they knew that most legislators were celebrating summer with their families. The bill passed with no opposition. It then lay dormant in a Senate Committee until December 20th, when it was brought to the Senate floor, presumably with the hope that no one was watching. Luckily, these champions were watching and they showed up, held the line and kept it from becoming law in 5 legislative sessions in the last 10 days of the year. This is an oversimplification, the details of the political machinations that were attempted by those wanting to force this bill through at all costs were enough to turn your stomach.
But, due to the persistence of Senator Eldridge and his colleagues who stood up for good democratic process, zero mercury and a healthier future for our kids in 2012, we have another chance to start fresh in 2013. We have the opportunity to call for an effective solution to this problem and put in place the kind of collection programs already in place in the European Union and around the United States. Please join us in thanking Senator Eldridge and working together in the coming year to win a permanent solution to this very persistent problem.
Elizabeth Saunders, Massachusetts Director
Cindy Luppi, New England Director, Clean Water Action