Beware Ongoing Mercury Pollution in Air, Water

06-21-2011 // Ed Perry

This article was originally published in the Pocono Record.

Man fly fishing

As a life-long fisherman, I get angry when I learn how many lakes and streams have been contaminated with mercury. Although every state has a fish consumption advisory for mercury, Pennsylvania specifically lists 82 streams and lakes where limiting your consumption of fish due to mercury contamination is recommended. For example, the advisory recommends having only two meals of smallmouth bass per month when the fish are taken from the Delaware River, from its source all the way to Interstate 80. Even small streams such as Tobyhanna Creek below Pocono Lake are contaminated with enough mercury that an advisory is warranted.

Unfortunately, Pennsylvania is the second leading state in emitting mercury pollution, with coal fired power plants emitted 15,550 pounds of mercury in 2009. Clearly, this is an area where we don't want to be a leader. 

Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that is emitted into the air from coal-fired power plants, the largest source of mercury pollution. Wind, rain and snow then carry mercury to all points of the globe, where it has been found in everything from salamanders to polar bears. Once it's deposited in lakes and streams, micro organisms convert it to methylmercury, a highly toxic form which bioaccumulates in aquatic life. Eventually, upper levels of the food chain, like walleye, smallmouth bass, channel catfish, rock bass, and largemouth bass accumulate mercury in their tissues to unsafe levels. Unfortunately, upper levels of the food chain includes us, and eating fish is the way most of us are exposed to mercury.

Burning this dirty fossil fuel to cool and heat our homes is literally poisoning us. Mercury is so pervasive that one in six women of childbearing age has blood mercury levels that exceed those considered safe by the Environmental Protection Agency for a developing baby. This amounts to approximately 630,000 babies born every year at risk of developmental problems because of prenatal mercury exposure.

Despite the fact that mercury is so toxic, Big Coal and its allies in congress have successfully prevented mercury regulations for decades. It's hard to believe, but in the year 2011, when we have taken action to reduce most other harmful air toxins, mercury pollution from coal fired power plants is unregulated.

Ironically, three months ago, U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-11, voted to eliminate funding for the Environmental Protection Agency and then voted to prevent EPA from taking action to reduce mercury pollution from cement plants, which are the third largest source of mercury pollution (there's at least one in his district). Then in a fit of hypocrisy, he recently wrote to EPA complaining that it wasn't doing enough to protect the health of residents in his district!

Despite the hostile attitude of the House of Representatives to protecting our health and environment, the EPA is moving forward with new rules for mercury and other toxic air pollutants, like arsenic, chromium, and nickel, and acid gases, including hydrogen chloride and hydrogen fluoride.

These technically and economically feasible regulations will also reduce the amount of fine particulates in the air, the kind that get into the lungs of our kids and those with asthma.

Obviously, there will be costs with implementing this new rule. The EPA estimates the annual cost will be $10.9 billion annually by 2016. Critics will howl that

The EPA estimates that the health benefits associated with reducing exposure to fine particles are $59 billion to $140 billion in 2016. Without these regulations, the cost of inaction will be borne by our families, our kids, and those with health problems. Our families will continue to spend a small fortune on health care costs while the coal companies will continue to get a free ride.

If you're like me, you've got to be tired of the dishonest arguments from the polluting industries and their congressional allies about the consequences of reducing pollution. Their common refrain has been that reducing pollution will break our economy and our families. Despite our country having strong environmental laws that protect our health and environment, our standard of living and environmental quality is the envy of the world.

We have a basic right to expect clean air and water, and that our families are protected from toxic pollutants.

Senator Casey has been a strong support of clean air and water and we are counting on him to support EPA's effort to finally get control of these toxic air pollutants and stand firm against the inevitable attacks that are sure to come.