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Mercury rising

Heavy reliance on coal is boosting mercury levels. How should the US limit emissions from the power industry?

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 29, 2004

John Ament likes to go fishing, but these days he doesn't eat the bass he catches at Caddo Lake, his much-loved family retreat. Too much mercury in them, he says. Texas authorities agree.

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That's why they have issued a mercury warning for fish caught in Caddo, the Lone Star State's largest natural lake and one of its most beautiful with ancient-looking cypress trees dripping Spanish moss.

Mr. Ament's lament is being felt nationwide. In 2002 at least 43 states issued mercury warnings for fish covering 12 million acres of lakes and 400,000 miles of rivers. In January, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warned that 1 in 6 women of childbearing age had mercury levels in her blood that could put a fetus's development at risk.

The reason for the rise in mercury contamination, many suspect, is the nation's heavy reliance on coal. Emissions from electric utility plants represent the single largest unregulated industrial source of mercury emissions in the US, according to the EPA. Some 500 power plants pump out 60 percent (45 tons) of the 75 tons of mercury released into the air by all industries that year, according to the EPA's 2001 Toxic Release Inventory.But environmentalists charge that plans to clamp down on the problem have been undermined by the White House, which says that it favors a more flexible market-oriented approach.

When mercury is expelled from smokestacks, and falls to earth as particles or in rain, it sinks into lake and river sediment. Then bacteria and plants absorb methyl mercury into the food chain - with predator fish, loons, osprey, and humans consuming the highest and potentially most harmful concentrations. Even though mercury has been a regulated air toxin for 35 years, it is not currently controlled in power plants.

Last fall a federal advisory committee on power-plant mercury was on the verge of recommending cuts of up to 90 percent in utility mercury emissions and a cap of five tons for the industry by 2008. But the Bush administration sidestepped the task force, proposing an alternative "cap and trade" approach that would reduce mercury emissions 70 percent by 2018.

A similar cap-and-trade approach has earned kudos for cutting other power-plant pollutants, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. But critics argue mercury is different - a toxin whose presence must be cut quickly. Environmentalists say that six to seven times more mercury would enter the environment under Bush's plan compared to the more stringent plan.

"The problem is that you want mercury as a toxic pollutant to be reduced, not just traded to someplace far away," says Tom Nathan, a mercury expert with the National Environmental Trust who was a member of the EPA advisory committee on mercury. "If they don't clean up, you end up with hot spots like Florida's Everglades. Allowing a Florida utility to trade with a Massachusetts plant doesn't do Florida much good."

The EPA's new approach is generating considerable political heat. A number of state attorneys general, mainly from the East Coast, along with environmental groups are expected to submit rebuttals to the EPA mercury plan by Friday - the deadline for public comment.

Long-term impact

"Mercury is an important issue, one that needs addressing," says Barry Bennick, co-owner of the Pine Needle Lodge on the shores of Caddo Lake. "My concern is not about how mercury affects us today or [in the] next couple of years, but how it will affect this lake 50 years from now."

Caddo's game fish have become dangerously laden with mercury since a bevy of power plants sprang up in counties nearby after World War II, Mr. Ament says. Most plants burn soft brown lignite found just below the surface - a type of coal with the highest mercury content in the US, according to the US Geological Survey.

Ament and some scientists see a connection between mercury in Caddo fish and the mercury in electric utility plumes blowing over Caddo. That's why he and seven other residents sued four nearby power plants last summer to get them to scrub mercury from their emissions.

About 30 miles from Caddo, in Titus County, is the Monticello Steam Electric Station, the third largest mercury-emitting power plant in the US and No. 1 in Texas in 2001. Monticello, along with three other plants also named in the suit, pumped nearly 2 tons of mercury into the air in 2001, according to the EPA.