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Great Lakes Article:

Alarmingly High mercury pollution
Emission cleanup needed in state, say environmentalists

By Jennifer Brooks and Jennifer Chambers / The Detroit News
08/07/2002



   SOUTHFIELD -- Thought of as pure and cleansing, the rain falling in Oakland County is anything but.
   Rain collected at sampling stations across Lawrence Technological University in Southfield show mercury levels up to 114 times higher than what is considered safe in surface water. Oakland County's readings are the highest in the state among counties tested by the National Wildlife Federation.
   Now, environmental groups are using the excessive readings as an example of why Michigan needs to clean up its emissions.
   "These results are startling," said National Wildlife Federation staff Scientist Michael Murray.
   Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that can damage the brains of developing fetuses. It poses no known risk to people who stand in the rain or drink rainwater. But mercury in the lakes and rivers becomes concentrated in the bodies of fish, to the point that fish at the top of the food chain, such as perch or bass, can have mercury levels hundreds of times the levels the Environmental Protection Agency considers safe.
   Women who are pregnant or likely to become pregnant are generally advised to avoid eating fish from Michigan lakes and rivers more than once a month. Since 1988, Michigan has had to warn people not to eat most of what they catch.
   Murray said several factors may have contributed to the abnormally high readings, particularly the sample collected on June 26, which had a mercury level 114.4 times the level the EPA considers safe for people.
   Metro Detroit is a heavily industrialized area with multiple sources of potential mercury pollution -- particularly coal-burning power plants and waste incinerators.
   There was very little rain that day, so the pollutants in the air were concentrated in the small sample scientists collected at the reading station, Murray said. And the wind was blowing out of the southeast that day -- right over the Hamtramck medical waste incinerator, a likely source of mercury contamination.
   Dennis Fox, spokesman for Michigan United Conservation Clubs, which represents recreational fishing organizations, said the pollution not only damages the state's tourism industry, it takes some of the fun out of fishing.
   "Our members not only want to catch fish, they want to take them home and eat them, too," he said.
   Rachel Shymkiw, who lives on the shores of Pontiac Lake in White Lake Township, says she and her friends are getting tired of having to throw back their catches. Oakland County boasts more than 1,400 natural lakes and innumerable streams, creeks and wetlands, as well as the headwaters of five major rivers.
   "When you go and get your license, they warn you not to eat more than one a week," said Shymkiw, who belongs to the Friends of Pontiac Lake Recreation Area environmental group. "This is unacceptable. It's time to take action."
   Environmentalists are asking the state to reduce mercury pollution levels 90 percent by the year 2010, either by converting coal-burning facilities to cleaner fuels -- coal is a major source of mercury contamination -- or installing pollution control devices on smokestacks. All five gubernatorial candidates have expressed support for the idea.
   David Ross, executive Director of the Great Lakes office of the National Wildlife Federation, said his group is working now to estimate how much mercury emission reductions would cost Michigan industries.
   The Environmental Protection Agency, which is considering similar mercury limits at the federal level, estimated it would cost $1 billion to $2 billion to reduce mercury emissions at all the coal-burning facilities nationwide, he said.
   Some industries have already taken steps to reduce their mercury emissions. Detroit Edison converted a coal-burning power plant near Grosse Ile to burn natural gas instead, after protests from environmentalists, said Heather Northway of the Oakland County-based East Michigan Environmental Action Council.
   "I'm concerned about my personal exposure to mercury," Norway said. "Both for myself and for any children I may have in the future."
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