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Potentially toxic mercury levels limit Missouri fish supply

Coal-burning power plants can affect mercury levels.
Sunday, August 29, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:46 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 10, 2008

Most natural-foods store owners clamor to stock their shelves with food from local sources. But when it comes to fish from Missouri waterways, Walker Claridge, the owner of the Root Cellar on Providence Road, isn’t interested.

Since 2001, all of the state’s waterways, from the Missouri River to Hinkson Creek, have been under a fish advisory because of mercury content. And while the advisory only warns certain people — including small children and women of childbearing age — not to eat certain types of fish, Claridge isn’t taking any chances.

That means his customers won’t find mid-Missouri favorites such as largemouth bass more than one foot long available for purchase.

“We just can’t find a good clean source for it,” Claridge said, referring to all fish from Missouri.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the major sources of mercury in Missouri water are coal-burning power plants and the burning of medical and municipal wastes.

Mike Jay, an EPA environmental scientist whose territory includes Missouri, said that determining the source of mercury in the region’s creeks and rivers is difficult.

“Some of the mercury that is being deposited in mid-Missouri is from your local sources,” he said. “But the fraction of that is probably very small.”

Factors such as precipitation, the height of stacks releasing mercury from coal-burning power plants and the prevailing wind direction determine how much mercury is deposited in an area.

Both the city and MU power plants burn coal and release mercury into the air. The city’s plant on Business Loop 70 East emits 10.44 pounds of mercury annually, according to officials. That amount just exceeds the levels at which plants are required to report emissions to the EPA.

plant, however, does not meet the minimum level and is not required to notify the EPA, said Gene Nickel, an environmental engineer for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

Carla Klein, president of the Missouri Sierra Club, said that the fallout for mercury surrounding a power plant is generally 30 miles. Jay, however, said the range for emissions hovers near 60 miles. But the distance can vary depending upon weather conditions and other variables, he said.

Klein is concerned by the growing number of state fish advisories related to mercury and would like to see the Bush administration crack down by requiring power plants to add mercury filters to their operations. She said the Clean Air Act requires all coal burning power plants to have filters installed by 2012. Mercury-generating plants are now allowed to expand by one-third without adding filters, Klein said.

Klein’s concerns are echoed by the Missouri Public Interest Research Group, a citizens’ action organization, which campaigned last week in Columbia tougher standards on mercury reduction from coal-burning power plants.

“It’s kind of scary that our tourist logo is about rivers running through it— but don’t swim in them or eat the fish,” Klein said.


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