Coal Burning Power
Plants Spewing Mercury
By Cat Lazaroff
WASHINGTON, DC (ENS) - Some 400 coal burning power plants in 43 states are emitting an estimated 98,000 pounds of mercury into the air each year, reveals a new report by a coalition of environmental groups. The report is the first to document the amount of mercury pollution generated by individual electric power companies nationwide.
The report, "Mercury Falling: An Analysis of Mercury Pollution from Coal Burning Power Plants," was released Wednesday by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), Clean Air Network (CAN) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The groups analyzed the results of mercury coal sampling conducted by power companies from January 1999 through June 1999. The utilities were required to sample mercury in the coal they burned in 1999 due to an NRDC lawsuit filed in 1993.
Environmental groups charge coal burning power plants with spewing hundreds of pounds of mercury into the air each year (Two photos by Carole Swinehart, courtesy Michigan Sea Extension) Besides documenting mercury discharges to the air, the report also uncovered an estimated 81,000 pounds of mercury tainted solid waste discharged by power plants each year.
The biggest mercury polluters, according to the report, are the Southern Company, American Electric Power, Edison International and the Tennessee Valley Authority. These companies accounted for nearly 20 percent of all power plant mercury pollution in the U.S.
"Mercury is one of the most toxic substances we know, and yet the federal government does not regulate mercury emissions or waste from power plants, which are the largest source of mercury pollution," sayd David Hawkins, a senior attorney at NRDC and a coauthor of the report. "We found that the biggest mercury polluters are the same utility companies that the Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently sued for failing to install modern pollution controls as required by the Clean Air Act."
The EPA and New York are suing the owners of 16 coal burning power plants over alleged violations of the Clean Air Act. They accuse the companies of making major upgrades at their facilities without installing new pollution controls, which is illegal under the Act. Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal announced Wednesday that Connecticut is joining the lawsuit.
The environmental groups releasing yesterday,s report are adding mercury to the list of power plant pollutants that pose a risk to public health. They are calling on the EPA to develop national controls for utilities, mercury stack emissions and toxic wastes.
Many of the worst mercury polluters are also accused by the EPA of illegally upgrading without installing pollution controls The groups are also calling on Congress to pass legislation to set strict emissions caps on mercury and other common pollutants from power plants, such as smog forming nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and carbon dioxide.
The pollution from these plants is creating "smog and acid rain, polluting Long Island Sound, fouling our air and rivers and aggravating and creating respiratory problems, even shortening lives," said Blumenthal. Eastern states are unable to comply with federal clean air standards because of this interstate pollution, he said.
Like other air pollutants, mercury is carried downwind, contaminating both local and distant rivers and lakes.
Other pollutants from power plants are measured in tons, so mercury releases may appear small in comparison. But mercury is highly toxic. A mere 1/70th of a teaspoon (one gram) falling into a 25 acre lake each year could contaminate its fish to the point that they are unsafe to eat.
Mercury is a heavy metal. Like lead, it affects the central nervous system, putting children in utero, infants and young children at highest risk. People who eat a lot of fish, including Native Americans and subsistence fishermen, are also at risk.
Mercury from power plants that ends up in lakes or streams can make fish unsafe to eat (Photo courtesy Center for Great Lakes and Aquatic Sciences) "These power plants are contaminating the food we eat and the air we breathe," says EWG,s John Cocquyt, who did the report,s data analysis. "It,s time to close the loopholes in the Clean Air Act that allow this to continue."
Legislation has been introduced in Congress that would force utilities to cut mercury emissions by as much as 90 percent over the next five years. But environmentalists say more could be done in the near term. CAN, EWG and NRDC are calling on the EPA to set tight controls on mercury stack emissions and toxic coal waste, two issues that the agency has promised to announced decisions on within the next year.
"Electric power companies have convinced policy makers that pollution controls will cause national power outages," says Felice Stadler, CAN policy director and one of the report,s authors. "They,re lying. Other utilities have upgraded their pollution controls without leaving their customers in the dark. Generating electricity should not endanger the public health or contaminate our food supply."
Responding to the EPA,s allegations that they performed illegal upgrades without installing emissions control equipment, the power plant owners have said that they did only routine maintenance and repairs at the plants, and that the EPA was aware of what they were doing. Karen Meinke, spokesperson for Cinergy Corp., told ENS the company disagrees with the states and the EPA.
"We had been working with the EPA" for years, said Meinke. "We certainly feel that we have been operating all of our plants within our environmental permits." In the 1980s, Cingery was working on its Beckjord plant in New Richmond, Ohio, one of the plants named in the lawsuits. "EPA was onsite and fully aware of what we were doing," Meinke says. "It begs the question why has it taken this many years for the EPA to decide on this action?"
The mercury report, and tables listing power plant polluters in each state, are available online at: < and <
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