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Report: Indiana has worst mercury site
'Hot spot' ranking for area just north of Fort Wayne follows report on emissions.
By Maureen Groppe and Jon Murray
Indianapolis Star

WASHINGTON -- A 22-square-mile area north of Fort Wayne is the most mercury-contaminated spot in the country, according to a report from a national environmental group.

An Environmental Protection Agency study, used to determine mercury "hot spots," did not identify the source of the pollution. But Michael Shore, a senior policy analyst with Environmental Defense, said power plants in northwest Indiana and the Chicago area are probably behind much of the mercury in Indiana's hot spot.

That finding comes less than a week after figures released by the Indiana Public Interest Research Group, and based on federal emissions data, showed Indiana's power plants emit the fourth-largest amount of mercury pollution -- 5,728 pounds in 2001 -- in the country.

The two environmental groups say the findings show Hoosiers will be among those most affected if the Bush administration does not require power plants to significantly reduce emissions.

The EPA is expected to propose by Monday new rules on mercury emissions from plants.

The rules will require emissions to be slashed 70 percent by 2018, EPA spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman said.

Mercury deposited by rainwater makes its way into rivers and lakes, where it accumulates in fish and poses health risks to people who eat them. Mercury can cause developmental and brain damage in children and fetuses.

Indiana officials say the state's mercury problem needs to be addressed. But solutions must take into account available technology and how quickly new controls can be implemented, said Tim Method, deputy commissioner of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

"Everybody is focused on addressing the mercury problems we currently see in our water," Method said. "Everybody agrees one of the best measures that can be taken is to address mercury from coal-fired power plants."

In 2000, Indiana burned 70.6 million tons of coal, more than any state except Texas.

Patrick Bennett, director of environmental affairs for the Indiana Manufacturers Association, cautioned against overreaction to the environmental groups' reports.

While people should take precautions such as limiting fish consumption, Bennett said, mercury is a naturally occurring risk that would be there even if reductions in pollution were achieved.

"The mercury that is in the environment will still be in the environment," he said.

If the federal government acts, it would be the first time mercury emissions from power plants have been regulated, the EPA's Bergman said.

"This is a significant first step to reduce mercury emissions from power plants. In effect, we will be going from zero regulations to a mandatory 70 percent cut," Bergman said.

Environmental groups, however, say the proposed reductions aren't fast enough or big enough. They also fear the EPA will allow plants to cut emissions by buying and selling pollution credits from each other. That means, for example, that an Indiana power plant would not have to reduce its mercury emissions -- and could even increase them -- if it buys credits from plants elsewhere that have cut back.

Environmental Defense's report was based on EPA's mathematical models of emissions data, weather patterns and topography to find the biggest mercury "hot spots" -- or estimated concentrations of contamination -- in each state. Indiana's "hot spot" was the most contaminated in the nation, according to the group.

Environmental Defense's report is landmark because it shows a clear relationship between mercury deposits and local polluters, said Andy Knott, the Hoosier Environmental Council's air and energy policy director.

"This is very significant for Hoosiers," Knott said. "If the Bush administration isn't going to take (mercury) seriously, then Congress should step in, or state governments should do something at the state level."

State Sen. Beverly Gard, R-Greenfield, chairwoman of the Senate Environmental Affairs Committee, said she's not surprised that Indiana ranks high on mercury emissions, given the predominance of coal-fired power plants. But the problem is best addressed with new regulations at the national level, Gard said, so pollution that crosses state lines is also dealt with.

"It certainly needs to be fast enough that we're going to see the benefit of increased regulation," Gard said. "But . . . we need to balance the economic impact."

The EPA plans to propose both the credit approach to reducing mercury emissions and a requirement that plants use the best available technology, according to Bergman. After taking public comments, the EPA will make its final decision in a year.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 1999 that one of 10 American women of childbearing age had near-dangerous levels of mercury in her blood.

All Indiana lakes and streams are under a mercury advisory recommending limited consumption of fish, especially by children and women of child-bearing.

A spokesman for Cinergy, the largest provider of energy in Indiana, said the health effects of mercury emissions are unclear.

"There's a significant question when you look at some of the longer-term studies as to what the overall impact is from a health basis," said spokesman Steve Brash.

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