Thursday, January 19, 2006

Kudos for Governor Blagojevich's Proposed Rule on Mercury Emissions

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

In a commentary last year, I pointed out that the State of Illinois addressed the problem of mercury contamination in fish by advising women of childbearing age and children under fifteen not eat much of it.

I also suggested that telling people not to eat the fish they catch is an unreasonably limited solution to the problem of mercury contamination. That’s because we know that forty-some percent of mercury emissions come from coal burning power plants, and that technology exists to reduce those emissions by ninety percent at a reasonable cost.

Well, check this out. Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich has proposed a rule to make it happen.

The Governor’s rule would require operators of coal-fired power plants to reduce emissions by an average of ninety percent across their entire fleet by 2009, allowing another three years before each individual plant has to meet the new standard.

It’s especially significant that the rule Governor Blagojevich has proposed does not permit power plants to buy allowances or trade mercury emissions credits with other companies or states. While such practices can be reasonable with respect to other pollutants, they are not when it comes to mercury, since they can lead to the creation of toxic “hot-spots.”

Why is it important to reduce mercury in the environment? Mercury ingested by eating contaminated fish inhibits brain development in fetuses and young children, and its impacts appear to be irreversible. Early exposure to unsafe levels of mercury can create problems in balance and coordination, as well as deficits in memory, learning ability, and attention span. In proposing the stricter standard, Governor Blagojevich cites studies indicating that as many as ten percent of babies born each year are exposed to unsafe levels of mercury as fetuses.

While stricter regulations on mercury emissions from power plants in Illinois are to be applauded, it should be remembered that they represent only a second-best option for addressing the problem. We’re talking about an airborne pollutant that can travel far from its source without any regard for state lines, one that really should be regulated nationally. State regulations only became necessary when last year the US EPA failed to require ninety percent cuts in mercury emissions by 2008—despite the fact that its own staff had found such reductions were possible within just a few years, using existing technologies.

The well-crafted rule that Governor Blagojevich has proposed for Illinois is strongly supported by statewide environmental groups, including Prairie Rivers Network, which is based in Champaign. According to Prairie Rivers executive director, Jean Flemma, the new rule “is a huge victory for public health in Illinois, and the Governor should be commended for taking the lead in protecting our citizens, our communities, and our environment.”

The Governor’s proposed rule still needs approval from the Illinois Pollution Control Board and the state legislature’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules.

If it is approved, Illinois—which currently ranks fifth among all states for mercury emitted from power plants—will go from being a leading mercury polluter to leading the nation in reducing that pollution.