Mercury Pollution on the EPA’s Agenda for 2011

Image: “Coal-fired Power Plant,” courtesy of Flickr user Rennett Snowe

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is set to finalize a rule for cutting mercury emissions from coal- and oil-fired power plants this year.

(The EPA’s proposal is due March 16, while the final ruling is set be released November 16).

According to the EPA, coal-burning power plants contribute more than “50 percent of all domestic human-caused mercury emissions” in the U.S. This makes them the largest source of airborne mercury pollution in the country.

As it stands, 19 U.S. states have introduced their own mercury emissions regulations.

A new report by environmental advocacy group, Environment America ranks 451 power plants nationwide according to how much mercury they pumped into the atmosphere in 2009.

The report, Dirty Energy’s Assault on our Health: Mercury,” makes use of data from the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory.

According to the report, four plants in Texas ranked in the top ten of the most severe polluters.The Martin Lake Steam Electric Station and Lignite Mine, in Tatum, finished worst in the nation, emitting 2,660 pounds of mercury.

The report highlights that the top 25 largest mercury polluters are based in 12 states, with four states—Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia— responsible for 68 percent of the mercury emitted by the top 25.

Mercury is a neurotoxin that is linked to developmental and brain defects, and kidney damage, especially in developing fetuses. Exposure to high doses can result in death. It occurs naturally in the earth’s crust and is present in air, water and soil. It is also found in various rocks, including coal. (Find out more here and here).

When coal is burned mercury is released into the atmosphere. It can be brought back to earth by rain, dust and snow, and winds up in rivers, lakes, oceans and soil.

Bacteria living in soil and water convert mercury into methylmercury, which can be hazardous to human health. In water methylmercury works its way up the food chain in an exponential fashion. Small plants and animals consume the substance; larger fish eat these creatures, resulting in a build up of mercury in their tissues. Larger fish that eat these mid-level predators take in a higher concentration.

According to the EPA, almost all fish and shellfish contain traces of mercury, but this does not pose a health risk for most people. However, a 2000 EPA report highlights that “more U.S. waters are closed to fishing because of mercury contamination than any other toxic contamination problem.”

The EPA emphasizes that risk is based on how much fish is eaten and the levels of contamination in the fish. Women and children are advised not to eat larger species such as shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish.

Environment America is calling on the EPA to issue a stringent standard that will cut mercury pollution by more than 90 percent. But this is not an easy task.

“The EPA is facing a lot of difficulty in Congress right now, in terms of their ability to regulate pollutants through the Clean Air Act, says Mollie Allers, state associate for Environment Montana, Environment America’s Montana affiliate. “Some in Congress are hoping to delay their action in regulating these pollutants. It’s faced a lot of opposition from strong industry powers in Congress that are seeking a less stringent rulemaking,” she says.

I wrote an article on this for with a focus on Montana’s Colstrip Steam Electric Station. This plant is the second largest coal-fired plant west of the Mississippi river. It burns the equivalent of one rail car’s worth of coal every five minutes, according to PPL Montana, the company that co-owns and operates it.

According to the report, Colstrip was the 11th largest mercury polluter in the U.S. in 2009. It emitted 1,490 pounds of mercury in 2009, which accounted for most of the 1,726 pounds of mercury released by all of Montana’s power plants that year.

However, the plant cut this number by 85 to 90 percent in 2010 after installing a new mercury control system, says Gordon Criswell, director of environmental and engineering compliance at PPL Montana.

In 2010, Colstrip was in compliance with Montana’s state mercury emissions standard (introduced on January 1 last year) according to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

For the full story on Colstrip please visit NewWest.


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