Mercury on the Rise
President Bush wants power plants to release more toxic mercury into the air. For Maui, this is a bad idea.
August 25, 2005
Volunteers with the national organization Environmental Action recently spent five days on Maui pounding the pavement in an effort to tell residents about President George W. Bush's so-called "Clear Skies Bill." The bill would, far from actually "clearing" our skies, actually allow fossil fuel-fired power plants to increase the amount of toxic mercury they belch into the air. Environmental Action's work on Maui was part of its largest-ever grassroots campaign, which stretched across 16 states.
"Overall, people don't know about the impacts of mercury in our environment," Field Manager Kory Payne told me.
Mercury is released into the atmosphere by many different man-made and natural sources. Volcanic activity is a natural source of mercury emissions. Man-made industrial sources include burning coal or liquid fuel in power plants and refineries, mobile sources such as cars, trucks and buses and agriculture sources such as cane burning, and mining.
Mercury poisoning causes brain and nerve damage, resulting in impaired coordination, blurred vision, tremors, irritability and memory loss, behavioral problems and loss of intelligence. Mercury also causes heart disease, cancer and reproductive system damage.
"[T]he plain and simple truth is that this new [Environmental Protection Agency] rule will allow more mercury into our environment than does the current law," U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D, Vermont) has said. "Hundreds of the oldest, dirtiest power plants will not even control mercury emissions for more than a decade. That is what this rule gives us: more pollution, for longer than the Clean Air Act allows."
Power plants are the nation's largest uncontrolled source of mercury emissions and the single largest industrial source of some of the worst air pollutants, including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide.
Because of the current Clean Air Act, the EPA requires power plants to reduce emissions of mercury and other toxics 90 percent by 2008. The law requires each plant to use the "maximum achievable control technology" (MACT) on every power plant generating unit to reduce mercury emissions.
But President Bush has a different agenda. In February 2003, the administration submitted the "Clear Skies Initiative" to Congress. The legislation sets new, far weaker targets for emissions of sulfur dioxide, mercury, and nitrogen oxides from U.S. power plants. The Clear Skies Bill exempts power plants from incorporating the maximum achievable control technology. The Clear Skies Bill also extends the Clean Air compliance deadline giving power plants until 2018 to delay reduction of mercury emissions—but by then, they will only have to cut them by 70 percent.
"The Bush administration is portraying the Clear Skies Bill as something palatable," said Moria Chapin, Environmental Action's Campaign Director. "It gives the impression that the Clear Skies Bill is reducing mercury emissions when actually it allows power plants to continue releasing almost seven times more mercury than enforcement of the current Clean Air Act would allow."
Bush's bill is an economic approach to reducing mercury emissions. Instead of applying the technology to reduce mercury and toxins released from power plants, a "cap and trade" system allows noncompliant operators the option of buying pollution credits from other plants that have already managed to lower their mercury emissions below targeted levels.
Power plants must meet EPA ambient air quality standards and submit annual performance tests quantifying pollutants like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and various other particulates to assure they are complying with their permit.
Wilfred Nagamine, Project Manager with the state's Department of Health Clean Air Branch, said the proposed mercury rule is more directed towards the coal burning power plants in the Eastern U.S. All but one of Hawai'i's power plants use fuel oil to generate electricity.
"Emissions from fuel oil combustion are much less than the annual mercury emissions from coal combustion," Nagamine said. "The small quantity generated from burning diesel fuel is not considered to be a concern and the DOH doesn't see the need for mercury emissions testing."
While the DOH doesn't require Hawai'i power plants to treat for mercury and mercury compounds, the EPA does. In Hawai'i, the most recent data (2003) shows that state power plants and refineries released 435 pounds of mercury and mercury compounds into the atmosphere. Within that, Maui Electric Company's Ma'alaea plant released 33 pounds of mercury and mercury compounds; the Kahului plant emitted 16 pounds.
Regional EPA and MECO officials say these numbers show that Hawai'i plants are already ahead of the nation as far as mercury emissions are concerned. Mercury in the waters around the state are another matter entirely.
No one really knows why there's so much mercury in Hawaiian waters. What we do know is that metallic mercury from industrial sources is transported from the air and into the ocean, lakes and streams by rain and dust particles. Microorganisms then absorb it and convert it into methylmercury—an extremely toxic compound. Smaller fish then absorb it when they feed on contaminated microorganisms. Thus it rises up the food chain, steadily accumulating in the flesh of each succeeding fish. As a result, the larger fish have the highest amounts of methylmercury, which is then passed on to humans at the dinner table.
And that's why groups like Environmental Action see no need to open the mercury vents at our state's power plants.
"Hawai'i is too dependent on our local fishing for both our food and our economy to allow more toxic mercury from power plants," Payne said.
Mercury contamination in the ocean has already led the DOH and the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to issue formal guidelines warning about the mercury content in certain fish. In Hawai'i, the warning covers primarily the larger pelagic fish like ahi, aku and marlin.
In 2004, the EPA and FDA issued a nationwide fish consumption advisory on mercury. The alert targeted women who might become pregnant, women who are pregnant, nursing mothers and young children.
The danger is because methylmercury accumulates in the blood stream over time. Natural processes eventually remove methylmercury from the body, but it may take over a year for the levels to drop significantly.
Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control indicates that one in 12 women of childbearing age have blood mercury levels above those considered safe by the EPA. Based on the number of births each year, the EPA estimates that "more than 300,000 newborns each year may have increased risk of learning disabilities associated with in utero exposure to methylmercury."
Leslie Au, a toxicologist with the Hazards Evaluation and Emergency Response Office (HEER) of the state DOH is very concerned about mercury in our environment.
"Methylmercury is the most dangerous form of mercury, since it crosses the placental barrier," she said. "It also gets into and accumulates within the brain more easily than other forms of mercury, where it retards the development of a child's growing brain, which leads to decreases in I.Q. and increased risk of behavioral problems."
In 2003, Au and fellow DOH officials researched the levels of mercury found in local fish. Visiting an Oahu fresh fish wholesale auction, they collected samples from 10 commonly eaten local fish. The samples included Albacore (Tombo) Yellowfin Ahi, Bigeye Ahi, Skipjack (Aku), Dolphinfish (Mahimahi/Dorado), Pacific Blue Marlin (Kajiki), Striped Marlin (Nairagi), Moonfish (Opah) and Wahoo (Ono). The mercury levels found in the DOH test samples exceeded the EPA's acceptable daily requirement.
"Fish advisories are not the answer," said Sher Pollack, a public health nutritionist with the state Department of Health Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. "We eat a lot of fish in Hawai'i and we would prefer that we didn't have to set any limits but since mercury bioaccumulates in our local fish, we have no choice."
The situation frustrates Pollack. The DOH wants to encourage a traditional island diet but not to the point of helping residents injest higher doses of mercury.
"The technology to clean up polluting mercury emissions is already available," she said. "The solution is to clean up this planet so we can eat fish without being polluted."
The danger of mercury poisoning is a nationwide issue. As a bioaccumulative toxin, mercury remains in the environment for a long period of time and is not readily destroyed. Mercury from smoke stacks not only contaminates nearby water bodies, but also those far from the source.
According to the 2003 National Listing of Fish Advisories database, the number of safe eating guidelines issued continues to increase. States, territories and tribes also continue to issue new fish advisories, most of them involving mercury. In 2003, there were a remarkable 3,089 advisories issued in 48 states.
These advisories covered 35 percent of the nation's total lake acreage and 24 percent of the total river miles. Fifteen states have issued fish advisories for all of their costal waters. Almost 71 percent of the coastline of the U.S. (excluding Alaska) is currently under advisory. In 2003, 92 percent of the Atlantic coast and the entire Gulf Coast was under advisory.
Thirty-one states also currently have statewide advisories. Three states issued statewide advisories in 2003: Montana and Washington each added statewide mercury advice for lakes and rivers, while Hawai'i added statewide mercury advisories for marine fish.
But there is hope. In protest to the Bush Administration's attempt to lower mercury emission standards, Senators Leahy, Susan Collins (R, Maine) and Jim Jeffords (I-Vermont) have introduced S.J. Res. 20—their "Resolution of Disapproval."
S.J. Res. 20 would require the EPA to comply with the current Clean Air law. The resolution was placed on the Senate legislation calendar July 18, 2005 and could be brought up for a vote after legislators return from vacation on Sept. 6.
Locally, Environmental Action considers its grass roots effort a success. More than 2,300 of their petitions in support of S. J. Res. 20 and against the Clean Air Act. have flooded Senator Daniel Inouye (D, Hawai'i)'s office.
"We would like to thank Sen. Daniel Akaka for co-sponsoring the resolution, and we're excited that Sen. Inouye has indicated he will do the same," said Payne. "This resolution is an important step towards enforcing that Clean Air Act standard. Our children deserve to have clean air and clean water." MTW
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