Mercury advisories are rising

The Clear Skies Initiative and the Environmental Protection Agency seek to lower airborne pollution levels
Friday, November 21, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:02 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

If you live near a lake or river in Missouri, chances are good that body of water is under a mercury advisory. Between May 2000 and 2002, mercury advisories for Missouri lakes and rivers increased from zero to 288, 315 acres.

The issue of mercury levels, and how quickly they should be reduced, has become a hot topic of debate since President Bush proposed his “Clear Skies Initiative” in 2002. The initiative, which is currently being heard by committees in both the U.S. House and Senate, is designed to significantly reduce emissions from sources of pollution, especially coal-fired power plants. Under the plan, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury would all be gradually reduced over next several decades.

But environmental groups around the country are questioning the effectiveness of the president’s initiative. These groups argue that the methods being used to reduce pollutants and the timeline over which the reductions would occur are inadequate.

In October, the Missouri Public Interest Research Group released a report saying that Clear Skies will delay the maximum reduction of mercury emissions from power plants until 2018. The report says Clear Skies will encourage power plants to keep burning coal, a large source of mercury pollution.

Mercury is a heavy metal organically found in coal. When coal is burned in power plants, mercury is released into the atmosphere and eventually reaches waterways and lakes in the form of rain. It is absorbed by microscopic plants and animals, which are consumed by larger animals. The mercury eventually becomes concentrated in larger fish.

Exposure to large doses of mercury affects humans’ nervous systems, particularly in pregnant women and developing children, and increases the risk of contracting certain forms of cancer.

According to Environmental Protection Agency data cited in the research group’s report, 34 percent of the mercury pollution comes from coal-fired power plants, making such plants the top mercury polluters in the United States. Columbia has two coal-fired power plants.

The increase in mercury advisories in Missouri occurred after the EPA adopted more conservative risk numbers, forcing the state to increase the area of mercury consumption advisories over rivers and lakes.

Leanna Zweig, a resource scientist at the Missouri Department of Conservation’s regional office in Columbia, said the updated risk numbers represent EPA efforts to protect small children and pregnant women. She said there has not been a significant increase in mercury contamination levels in fish in Missouri.

Shannon Baker of the research group said Missouri started appearing in the mercury advisory databases in 2002, and she is concerned because fish consumption advisory levels cover a greater area than ever before.

Tad Johnsen, manager of the Columbia municipal power plant, does not see the Columbia plant as posing a risk. “We’re such a small emitter that the mercury regulations are something we are not too concerned with,” Johnsen said.

Johnsen is unsure what affects the new “Clear Skies” plan will have on coal-fired plants like the ones in Columbia. He said the concept seems good but he questions how the EPA is going to implement it.

Gale Carlson of the environmental public health division of the Missouri Department of Health said the extended advisory affects all water bodies in Missouri. Carlson said mercury might not be rising, but the EPA is finding reasons to extend the advisories as they study different types of fish.

“It’s a worldwide atmospheric problem,” said Carlson, adding that most sources of mercury pollution are within a 60- to 80-mile radius of a lake or river. Controlling mercury pollution is difficult because sources can be as far away as China, he said.

Officials at the Missouri Department of Health and the Department of Conservation view the EPA numbers as national standards that do not signify an increase in mercury levels.

But the departments have advised pregnant women and children under 12 not to consume any large-mouth bass more than 12 inches long.

Mercury reduction is just one part of what Clear Skies hopes to accomplish in Missouri. By 2020, the EPA estimates sources of pollution in Missouri would reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide by 28 percent, nitrogen oxides by 61 percent and mercury by 41 percent.

According to the EPA, under the initiative the health benefits for Missouri would be roughly $3.1 billion annually.

This would include 400 fewer premature deaths and 1,000 fewer hospitalization and emergency room visits each year. Those health benefits are dependent on the initiative’s success in states upwind from Missouri.

Environmental groups have been critical of Clear Skies because it would continue to allow plants to exchange pollution credits.

Currently, if one plant is below its allowance of a certain pollutant, such as sulfuric dioxide or nitrogen oxide, the plant can sell its credits to another plant that is unable to meet the national caps.

Over the next 15 years, “cap-and-trade” will be reduced incrementally every couple of years. By 2018 the plan will have implemented the tightest limits on how much pollution can be emitted as well as how much of that can be traded.

“We don’t think it’s aggressive enough,” Baker said. She said the plan does not allow for the exploration of alternative energy sources and that continuing to trade pollution credits will delay development of new power sources.

Dale Armstrong, regional spokesman for the EPA in Kansas City, said that “a lot of groups are uncomfortable with trying a different approach” when faced with the proposed Clear Skies Initiative. Armstrong said that by 2010 mercury emissions should be cut by nearly 50 percent.

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