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Great Lakes Article:

Don't Eat That Fish!
More Mercury Will be the Legacy of New Coal-Burning Plants
By Kari Lydersen
Infoshop News (
Published September 22, 2005

A young Mexican girl stood staring into a plastic white bucket entranced, watching the plump catfish and trout writhing in a shallow pool of blood. She repeatedly lifted one of the fish out by the length of fishing line still stuck in its jaw, giggling as it dropped back in the pail with a fleshy splash.

Are you going to eat the fish, she was asked. She nodded, with a big smile.

She and her family probably had no idea that the young girl and their other children risked serious neurological effects and other health risks from eating the fish, caught in the Fox River near Green Bay, Wisconsin, literally in the shadow of a coal-burning power plant across the water. The river is one of the country’s most contaminated waterways with PCBs, because of paper mills in the area, and like all bodies of water in this region it is likely to have a high mercury content from coal-burning power plants and other sources. Children and women of child-bearing age are only supposed to eat one fish per month in the Great Lakes region because of the risk of poisoning from mercury, a powerful neurotoxin known to cause arrested brain development in fetuses and young children and heart and kidney problems in adults.

“You are not supposed to eat catfish in any way, shape or form from the Fox River,” said US EPA Region Five senior health and science advisor Milton Clark after observing the family fishing.

But there is no sign at this popular fishing spot, and signs and pamphlets in general throughout the region are rare. 45 states have mercury advisories, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has reported that 30-50 percent of women of child-bearing age aren’t aware of mercury exposure risks. And the limits must also be applied to store-bought fish – a recent study by the group Illinois PIRG showed dangerous mercury levels in swordfish and tuna purchased in grocery stores around the country.

Before its risks were known, mercury was commonly used for everything from killing fungus and filling thermometers to tanning beaver pelts – that’s how the term Mad Hatter came about. Since its dangers became known the government has worked to take mercury out of distribution by conducting buybacks and exchanges of school thermometers, dental equipment, dairy monometers and other implements.

Mercury is in some ways a mysterious contaminant in that it exists in different forms that interact with and are disbursed through the environment in very different ways. Elemental mercury, the kind in thermometers of old, isn’t water soluble. But another form, oxidized mercury, converts to methylmercury in water, which becomes more highly concentrated as it moves up the food chain. Mercury can travel great distances through the atmosphere, and it has been shown that a significant amount of mercury contamination in Midwestern waterways actually originates from industry in Asia.

Doubts about the origin of mercury contamination were central to debate over the country’s first mercury emission standards released in March. Dave Michaud, a scientist with the Wisconsin power company We Energies, pointed this out in response to concerns about mercury contamination from We Energies’ coal-burning power plants.

“Mercury is everywhere, it’s a natural pollutant,” said Michaud. “You might think the power plant right here (on the Fox River) is spewing mercury into Lake Michigan, but it’s not as clear as it seems. Utilities represent a small percent of what’s falling from the sky, and coal burned in Wisconsin emits elemental mercury which wouldn’t fall locally or regionally.”

However a recent study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that coal-burning power plants in the US are in fact the major source of domestic mercury contamination. The study found that 16 of the top 25 sources of mercury in the Great Lakes are coal-burning power plants, some of them from Nevada and Texas but most in Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan.

“I get miffed at graphs showing [US] power plants being a small sector of the whole world[‘s mercury emissions],” said Clark. “You’ve got to hit mercury at every level to get rid of these fish advisories and reduce human exposure.”

Environmentalists and public health advocates say the new federal mercury emissions standards don’t do near enough to protect Americans from mercury, since they give polluters over a decade to reduce their emissions, with a 2018 deadline to reduce emissions by 70 percent. And the plan includes an emissions credit trading program which allows heavy emitters to buy “credits” from lighter emitters.

The effects of mercury are especially significant given that even though they may seem like a relic of the industrial past, coal-burning power plants are actually the major focus of the country’s energy plan for the next two decades. Government reports released last summer included specific plans for 94 new coal-burning power plants in 36 states, and a goal of 1,300 new coal-burning plants by 2020.

The main way mercury is known to enter the human body is through fish who absorb it in the water. The body is eventually able to clear mercury from the system, so it is considered safe to consume one fish per month. However the one-fish limit has not been effectively publicized or ingrained in the public, especially across ethnic and language lines, as the family fishing the Fox River showed. And for many people in the Midwest and other areas with mercury contamination, fishing is an affordable source of protein and/or a cultural and family tradition they are unwilling to sacrifice. While originally mercury was mainly thought to be a risk to children and fetuses, at least one study has recently shown a link between mercury and heart disease in adults.

Meanwhile mercury isn’t the only concern raised by coal-burning plants. Numerous studies have now linked them to respiratory problems including asthma and emphysema. A 2001 study by the Harvard School of Public Health blamed two coal-burning plants in Chicago, the Fisk and Crawford plants run by the company Midwest Generation, for causing an estimated 41 premature deaths, 2,800 asthma attacks and 550 emergency room visits per year. Nationally, a study by the group National Campaign Against Dirty Power showed 24,000 lives are cut short by an average of 14 years because of respiratory and heart problems and cancer exacerbated or likely caused by coal-burning power plants. Low-income and minority communities bear the brunt of these health effects, since the plants are normally located in or near lower-income areas. A 2002 study by the National Campaign Against Dirty Power found that 71 percent of African-Americans lived in counties that violated air pollution standards, compared to 58 percent of white Americans. African-Americans were also hospitalized for asthma attacks at three times the rate of white Americans. Reports by that group also found that seven of 10 Latinos in the U.S. are breathing air that violates federal standards, and 71 percent of Latinos live in counties that violate Clean Air Act standards.

Proposed coal-burning plants have raised intense community opposition in some places, like in Manistee, Michigan, where residents organized to defeat a proposed coal-burning power plant last year by persuading town officials to decide not to make zoning changes needed for the construction. But Tondu, the company proposing the plant, has filed a lawsuit seeking to override the town’s decision. Residents of South Bend, Indiana are also currently fighting a proposed plant by Tondu, arguing that it will pollute their air and eat up public funds through promised tax breaks and subsidies. In southeastern Wisconsin, environmentalists recently lost a battle to prevent We Energies from constructing a new coal-burning plant with a controversial “open system” cooling structure that will suck in a billion gallons of Lake Michigan water per day, potentially killing massive amounts of plankton and small fish and warming the surrounding water by about 15 degrees. The cooling system would be considered illegal for a new structure, but it is being allowed under what critics call a loophole in federal New Source Review provisions that allow the new plant’s construction to be considered part of an existing adjacent facility.

In response to complaints about the new We Energies facility, Michaud pointed out that something needs to be done to meet the spiraling energy needs of Wisconsin consumers, mirroring the situation in metropolises across the country. Chuck Ledin, senior chief of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, is among those pointing out that “we’re not doing enough on the demand side” – meaning both individual lifestyle choices and large-scale corporate consumption.

“There are a lot of market-based things we need to look at,” Ledin said. “For example the biggest electric consumers pay the lowest rates – is that an incentive to conservation?”

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