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Gaylord Nelson: Threat from coal-burning power plants is serious
By Gaylord Nelson
The Capital Times

More than 30 years ago, when the notion of Earth Day was first introduced, I, along with millions of my fellow Americans, knew we had a duty to respect and preserve our environment. We were driven by a sense of responsibility to future generations.

Today, science has caught up to the pace of social environmentalism. We now know what we once strongly suspected. Years of research and advancements in technology have provided us with solid evidence of the importance of environmental responsibility.

New data have also opened a new and very real issue for our consideration - the correlation between environmental stewardship and our own health. We can now see the impact that various types of development and resulting pollution can have on our own personal well-being.

For example, in southeastern Wisconsin, We Energies has proposed that it expand its Oak Creek coal-fired power plant, potentially creating the seventh-largest coal-burning power plant in America. As Wisconsin evaluates the appropriateness of such a plant, it must consider what modern science can tell us about the impact of coal pollution.

Unlike 30 years ago, today we know how heavy mercury pollution levels, like those that are expected to occur at the proposed Oak Creek expansion, can poison our waterways and present a serious health hazard to our citizens. Consider the amount of mercury that will be spewed from the proposed plant - more than 300 pounds annually. Mercury leaves the power plant in the form of air pollution before settling into our lakes, river and streams, essentially poisoning the fish and anything else that lives in the waters.

Ingesting fish with mercury can cause damage to kidneys and the nervous system. As a result, Wisconsin's DNR urges people younger than 15, nursing mothers and women of childbearing years not to eat more than one meal a week of panfish and no more than one meal a month of larger fish.

The National Academy of Sciences estimates that every year in the United States, 60,000 children are born who may suffer brain damage and have trouble in school because their mothers ate mercury-contaminated fish. In 2001, the proven dangers of eating too much mercury-laden fish prompted Wisconsin to extend its fish consumption advisory from 341 lakes to all of the more than 15,000 lakes in Wisconsin.

The fact is, over the last three decades, we have assembled a wealth of information about the impact of pollutants like mercury. And yet, with all we know, some continue to consider coal-burning power plants - one of the largest pollution sources of mercury - as a viable option for satisfying our energy needs.

Wisconsin's DNR has taken some steps to address the issue and is currently proposing new regulations that would require the state's biggest utilities to cut mercury emissions by 40 percent in 2010 and 80 percent in 2015.

While the proposed forced reductions seem to be a step in the right direction, it's disconcerting that We Energies saw these limits coming and already negotiated a deal with the state that would exempt the Oak Creek expansion from the newly proposed mercury emission limits. This is particularly troublesome when one considers the proposed location of the expansion - square upon the shoreline of Wisconsin's largest and greatest natural resource, Lake Michigan.

Of course, mercury is just one example of the many proven health threats presented by coal-burning power plants. Coal pollution is also a leading source of sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide and particulate matter, all of which can cause serious health problems, including asthma attacks, lung damage, cancer and premature death.

The body of scientific research related to our environment is continually growing. Issues related to pollution, once considered to be the concern of only radical environmentalists, are today viewed as vitally important because of their direct impact on such areas as our health and the economy.

Today, we know coal-burning power plants create real health problems for people living hundreds, even thousands of miles away from them. We know the damage that coal pollution causes to our lakes and streams is significant and, most often, irreversible. In the end, we now know too much to ignore the facts.

It's now time for our social policy to catch up with the science.

Gaylord Nelson served two terms as Wisconsin's governor and 18 years in the U.S. Senate. The founder of Earth Day, he currently serves as a counselor to the Wilderness Society.

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