Thursday, March 24, 2005

Mercury Pollution from Coal Burning Power Generation

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If you regularly buy a fishing license, or if you pay attention to reports about the healthfulness of eating certain foods, you’re likely aware that mercury from the environment accumulates in fish, and that eating contaminated fish can expose people to unhealthy levels of this toxic element.

At the levels we’re exposed to by eating fish, mercury poses the greatest danger to fetuses and young children, because it inhibits brain development. The impact is particularly severe for the fetus, which receives a concentrated dose of the mercury in its mother’s blood through the placenta. The impacts of prenatal exposure to mercury, which persist into adolescence and appear to be irreversible, include problems in balance and coordination, and deficits in memory, learning, and attention span.

According to calculations by one researcher at the U.S. EPA, nationally, as many as 630, 000 infants, or one in six babies, are born with unsafe levels of mercury in their blood each year.

One way to address the problem of human exposure to harmful levels of mercury is to advise people about how much or how little mercury contaminated fish they can safely eat. Like other states, Illinois does this through advisories issued by the Department of Public Health, which I quote:
In order to protect the most sensitive populations, pregnant or nursing women, women of childbearing age and children younger than 15 years of age are advised to eat no more than one meal per week of predator fish.
The predator fish referred to in the advisory include lots of favorite sport and food species, notabably bass, walleye, muskie and northern pike.

The Illinois advisory applies to fish taken from all rivers and streams, and all lakes within the state, as well as Lake Michigan. More restrictive advisories apply to certain bodies of water where tests have found higher concentrations of mercury.

Now, if we did not know how mercury got into the environment in the first place, or how to prevent mercury pollution at a reasonable cost, it would be reasonable to begin and end this discussion with fish consumption advisories. But the fact is, we do know how mercury gets into the environment, and we can reduce mercury pollution at a reasonable cost.

The largest single source of mercury emissions in Illinois is coal-fired power generation, which releases some four thousand pounds of mercury into the air annually. We’re currently 5th in national rankings for greatest mercury emissions by utilities.

Unfortunately, mercury emissions from coal-fired power generation are not currently regulated under federal clean air standards, and the U.S. EPA has recently reversed course on a policy that would have required ninety percent cuts in mercury emissions by the year 2008.

This refusal by the U.S. EPA to protect the public interest means that states are going to have to pick up the slack. We ought to be able to do this.

According to a report released in Fall 2004 by the National Wildlife Federation, mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants in Illinois could be reduced by 90%-- using existing technology--at a cost to residential customers of less than a dollar per month.