Heavy reliance on coal is boosting mercury levels. How should the US limit emissions from the power industry?
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But the largest of Monticello's three units has a scrubber to reduce sulfur dioxide that also cuts some of the mercury output, according to TXU Corp., a multinational company in Dallas than owns the plant. "TXU has an excellent record protecting the environment and ... doing more than is required by state and federal regulations," says Drew Douglas, a TXU spokesman. "While no mercury regulations exist today for power plants, TXU continues to cooperate with EPA as it develops regulations."Skip to next paragraph
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And with respect to Caddo Lake mercury, he says there's no evidence "to link emissions from any TXU power plants to any mercury contamination." He adds that "there is no evidence that the plaintiffs have suffered any harm from any power-plant emissions."
Neither his assurances nor the EPA cap-and-trade proposal comforts Karen Hadden, executive director of Texas Public Interest Research. She says Texas already leads the nation in utility mercury output, emitting 8,992 pounds of mercury into the air in 2001. "We're the worst," she says. "But under the cap-and-trade proposal, we would not get the cleanup we need. The utilities here would buy their way out of putting in controls rather than installing them. That's why we urge a 90 percent reduction at all plants and in a timely manner by 2008."
EPA officials deny they are getting set to impose a soft rule. Voluminous input has been taken from the public as well as industry, says William Wehrum, counsel to the assistant administrator of the EPA office of air and radiation, which develops air regulations.
"We're excited about the prospect of cap-and-trade with mercury," Mr. Wehrum says. "By doing it at the same time we are limiting other pollutants ... we believe it will lead to significant improvements in public health and sweeping and significant reductions in pollution from power plants across the board."
Wildlife advocates across the country are watching with interest. In Maine, there is concern that the haunting call of the loon echoing across the state's lakes could be lost if something isn't done soon. Power-plant emissions from the Ohio Valley are carried by winds across New England. Mercury in rain and snow has intensified concentrations in the region's lakes - where loons breed.
About 30 percent of the loon population in Maine has extra high levels of mercury, says Wing Goodale of the BioDiversity Research Institute in Falmouth, Maine. As a top predator, loons accumulate mercury by eating larger fish heavy with mercury.
"We are seeing decreased productivity, the ability to raise young - a 40 percent drop in their ability to raise young," Dr. Goodale says. "The birds become lethargic."
Loons live up to 30 years, begin breeding when they are seven years old, and hatch only two eggs every few years. The result could be a sudden die-off. "We've seen quick reductions in blood mercury when emissions have been reduced," Goodale says. "The levels start to decrease right away. So it's important to reduce emissions now, today, because we can get a response in the environment fairly quickly."
Of the top 10 mercury-emitting plants in the nation in 2001, three belong to American Electric Power, the nation's largest utility, based in Columbus, Ohio. But a company spokesman says progress on mercury emissions is already being made by installing pollution-reduction equipment aimed at nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide.
A case in point is the power plant with the 10th highest mercury emissions in the nation in 2001 - the huge, AEP 2,600-megawatt Gavin Plant in Cheshire, Ohio, which reported 950 pounds of mercury output. That same year, however, a new control system for NOX was installed. The next year, mercury dropped to 656 pounds. Last year, mercury fell to 527 pounds although more electricity was produced.
Still, the company was forced to buy the town for $20 million from residents who complained bitterly about ground-level smog after the new equipment was installed.
Back at Caddo Lake, however, there's no such panic over the mercury threat - just a determination to make a change. Property values have actually risen at the far western end of the lake, so the damage from mercury is hard to see, Ament admits.
"I'm not so much personally concerned about this because I never intend to sell this place," Ament says of his cottage. "But if word gets out that there's mercury contamination here, people will just back away. They won't want anything to do with this lake."