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E-M:/ mercury study points finger at power plants

Enviro-Mich message from davemec@voyager.net (Dave Dempsey)

December 19, 1997

CONTACTS:  Sally Billups, Dave Dempsey
Michigan Environmental Council


Environmental groups throughout the Midwest today hailed the release of a
long-awaited report from the Environmental Protection Agency as one of the
most thorough studies regarding mercury emissions from human-related
sources and their potential impact on human health and the environment.
The Michigan Environmental Council said the EPA report supports action by
the Legislature to halt uncontrolled mercury emissions from coal-burning
power plants.

Acknowledging that mercury levels have increased by a factor of two to five
since the beginning of the industrial era, the report points to current
emissions from combustion of coal, oil and waste containing trace amounts
of mercury as the leading sources of heightened mercury levels related to
human activity.

The final report contains a national inventory of current emissions of
major sources of mercury from human-related activities.  Coal-fired power
plants (32%) are the biggest culprits followed by municipal solid waste
incinerators (18%), coal and oil-fired commercial/industrial boilers (18%),
and medical waste incinerators (10%).  Use of mercury as a product has
fallen by more than 75% in the last decade, and when combined with tight
emission controls, mercury from municipal waste incinerators has fallen
dramatically.  In the meantime, uncontrolled power plant emissions are
expected to increase over time, so as mercury emissions are reduced from
incinerators, the burning of coal in electric utility boilers will dominate
new air emissions.

"It's time we take action to clean up the single largest source of mercury
emissions in Michigan," said Sally Billups, policy specialist at MEC.
"1998 will be the 10th year that Michigan has advised citizens to limit the
amount of fish they eat from every single inland lake because of widespread
mercury contamination, yet while the state has begun to take action on
other sources, it's done nothing on coal-burning power plants."

Billups pointed out that the state DEQ has estimated that at least 40% of
Michigan's current mercury emissions are from coal-burning power plants.
She added, "By not placing mercury emissions limitations on coal-fired
power plants, the federal and state governments have virtually guaranteed
the rapid expansion of electricity generation and resulting emissions from
these plants in the coming competitive electric industry."

Although utilities are the largest sources of hazardous air pollutants,
including mercury, they are regulated separately in the 1990 Clean Air Act
from other much smaller sources.  A study of the hazards to public health
associated with utility hazardous air pollutant emissions is expected to be
released in January 1998.  "It doesn't make sense that we have required
significantly smaller sources such as medical and municipal waste
incinerators to be regulated under federal statutes, while not requiring
minimum levels of control from the much larger polluting utilities," said

U.S. failure to control mercury emissions from electric power plants is
particularly troubling given the various agreements between the U.S. and
Canada to virtually eliminate mercury emissions to the Great Lakes Basin.
For example, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement commits the U.S. to a
50 percent reduction emissions and deliberate uses of mercury by 2006.

Mercury is a powerful neurotoxin capable of severely damaging developing
nervous systems prenatally through early childhood. The primary route of
exposure to humans and wildlife is through eating mercury-contaminated
fish. The bioaccumulation of mercury to levels thousands of times greater
than initially deposited in a waterbody is a result of the conversion of
mercury into the methylated form, which is considered the most toxic. Also,
people who eat large amounts of fish are at increased risk for mercury
exposure above levels considered safe,  including anglers, subsistence
fishers, and Native Americans.

Individuals who eat more than 3.5 ounces of fish per day on average may
ingest methylmercury exceeding what EPA considers a safe level depending on
the actual level of methylmercury in the fish.  EPA estimates that as many
as 84,000 women of childbearing may be consuming more than 3.5 ounces per
day.  In another study, EPA estimates that roughly 1.6 million women of
childbearing age and children may be eating fish with mercury levels high
enough to cause a "reduction in safety."  Actual exposure levels in
specific populations of concern remains a major uncertainty.  At the same
time, EPA and the Food and Drug Administration recognize the importance of
fish as a source of dietary protein, especially during pregnancy.  Said
Billups, "It's not enough to say, 'Stop eating fish,' when fish is such an
important food source.  Instead, we have to keep the mercury out of the
fish so that fish are safe to eat again."

Nationally, health departments in 37 states warn the public about eating
fish known to have unsafe levels of mercury through fish consumption
advisories.  In 1995, mercury accounted for 75% of the advisories.
Elevated mercury levels have been posted for 624 Minnesota lakes, for
example, representing more than nine out of ten lakes tested.  Some of the
most pristine, remote lakes have been found to have the highest mercury
concentrations.  The Food and Drug Administration has also issued
requirements to limit the sale of commercial marine fish due to mercury.

While several mercury emissions control technologies may potentially prove
effective in reducing mercury from coal and oil-fired electric power
plants, plants with such controls would continue to produce substantial
mercury-containing waste, much of which may eventually be emitted to the
environment.  Projected costs for applying these new technologies to the
nation's fleet of coal plants is in the hundreds of millions to billions of
dollars range.  "The only assured approach  to reducing mercury releases
from power plants is to burn less coal," said Billups.  "This is why we
support mercury prevention strategies in the utility sector such as
conversion to mercury-free renewable energy and natural gas technologies,
as well as energy efficiency."


Dave Dempsey
Michigan Environmental Council
119 Pere Marquette, Suite 2A
Lansing, MI  48912
(517) 487-9539
(517) 487-9541 (fax)

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