High mercury pollution
cleanup needed in state, say environmentalists
Jennifer Brooks and Jennifer Chambers / The Detroit
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
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
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,
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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