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Great Lakes Article:

Ohio rainwater is high in mercury

By Sarah Hollander
Plain Dealer

Rain and snow samples from Cleveland contained some of the highest mercury levels in the Midwest, according to a report released Tuesday by the National Wildlife Federation and other environmental groups.

Ten samples were collected on the roof of the Cleveland Environmental Center at Lorain Avenue and Fulton Road in Ohio City between Oct. 21 and Dec. 11 last year.

The results showed mercury levels eight times higher, on average, than levels considered safe for the Great Lakes by the Environmental Protection Agency.

"We see this as a call to action and not another piece of scary environmental news," said Zoe Lipman, of the federation's Great Lakes office in Ann Arbor.

Rain picks up mercury from polluted air, most of which comes from smokestacks at coal-fired power plants and other industries. The government has proposed new rules for reducing mercury emissions, and the EPA is in the middle of public hearings.

Cleveland's rainwater is not dangerous to drink or touch, Lipman said. It becomes dangerous when it accumulates in fish eaten by humans. Harmful chemicals can build up in the body and lead to serious health problems.

People generally think of rain as a cleansing agent, Stuart Greenberg of Cleveland-based Environmental Health Watch said.

"But, on the contrary, this rain is contaminating our lakes and streams," he said.

Over the past two years, the National Wildlife Federation has sampled rainwater in Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Those states also exceeded the EPA's average safe level, but Ohio's results were the worst.

Lipman said she's not surprised.

"Ohio is a heavy coal-burning state and surrounded by heavy coal-burning states," she said.

The Bush administration favors setting a nationwide cap on mercury emissions and letting industrial plants that make big cuts sell credits to those that don't.

Environmental groups want stronger restrictions and oppose the trading program, saying it would lead to mercury "hot spots" in parts of the country.

Akron-based FirstEnergy, a main source of mercury emissions in Ohio, supports the cap and trade program, spokeswoman Ellen Raines said. The company hopes any new regulations allow flexibility and a reasonable deadline, she said.

"Right now there aren't a whole lot of commercially and economically viable technologies out there," Raines said.

The utility, in partnership with New Hampshire-based Powerspan, is testing commercial-scale mercury control technology at its R.E. Burger Plant in southern Ohio.

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