Tests of rainfall find high mercury levels
Milwaukee readings far exceed EPA safe level, report
By ANNYSA JOHNSON
Article courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Oct. 3, 2001
Rain falling from the skies over Milwaukee contains levels
of mercury more than 10 times higher than what the Environmental
Protection Agency considers safe in the Great Lakes and
other waterways, according to a report released Tuesday
by a coalition of environmental groups.
"You think of rain being clean and pure, and that's how
it should be," said Andy Buchsbaum of the National Wildlife
Federation, which released the report. "But Milwaukee's
rain is not. It's contaminated with mercury, at levels
that put people and wildlife at risk."
The study, co-sponsored by Wisconsin's Environmental
Decade and the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, is intended
to bolster efforts by the Wisconsin Department of Natural
Resources to reduce mercury emissions in the state, primarily
at coal-fired utility plants.
The findings, which mirror the results of federation
studies in other urban areas, were given to the DNR as
it holds final hearings this week on a first-in-the-nation
plan that would require utilities to cut mercury emissions
by 90% over the next 15 years.
According to the report, researchers from the University
of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Minnesota found
elevated mercury levels in rain that fell on Milwaukee
on two dates last month. On Sept. 21, it said, mercury
was measured in the rain that was 101/2 times what the
EPA considers safe for people; on Sept. 23, it was measured
at eight times the safe level.
A neurotoxin that accumulates in the food chain, mercury
affects the brain, spinal cord, kidneys and liver, particularly
in young children and developing fetuses. Airborne mercury
falls back to Earth in precipitation, where bacteria in
lake sediment convert elemental mercury into a form easily
absorbed in turn by aquatic organisms, fish and people.
A study last year by the National Academy of Sciences
estimates that 60,000 newborns each year may suffer developmental
problems because of fetal mercury exposure, primarily
through the mothers' consumption of mercury-tainted fish
before or during pregnancy.
In February, the DNR and Wisconsin Department of Health
and Family Services expanded their fish advisory, warning
residents to limit - and in some cases cease - their consumption
of fish from nearly all of the state's 15,000 lakes and
Although mercury levels in rain do not pose any risk
to people or wildlife from direct contact, the report
says even small amounts of mercury in rain that end up
in lakes and rivers can make fish unsafe to eat.
But critics dismissed the report as irrelevant, saying
the stricter regulations proposed by the DNR would cost
industry $1 billion or more, and that any benefits would
"The bottom line is there will be very little environmental
benefit," said Jeff Schoepke, director of environmental
policy for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state's
largest business group. "Not one fish advisory will be
lifted as a result of the rule. This is an international
problem, and it needs an international solution."
Coal-burning power plants are the primary source of mercury
emissions, but it is also produced by waste incinerators
and the production of chlorine, according to the DNR.
Under the proposed rule change, Wisconsin's 13 coal-fired
power plants and other sources of mercury would be required
to cut emissions by 30% in five years, 50% in 10 and 90%
in 15 years.
Industry representatives concede that reductions are
needed, but they prefer voluntary measures, saying the
technology doesn't exist to reach the maximum reduction
"We support the need to reduce mercury reductions in
the state. We just don't think the DNR proposal is the
most effective way to do that," said Wisconsin Electric
spokeswoman Margaret Stanfield, who estimated that the
utility would spend from $1.4 billion to $3.3 billion
over 30 years to implement the changes.
Wisconsin Electric Power Co., which has six coal-fired
plants in the state, is experimenting with new mercury
disposal technology at its Pleasant Prairie Plant and
last year submitted a proposal to the EPA to voluntarily
reduce emissions by 40% over 10 years, Stanfield said.
But environmentalists said the DNR's proposed rule wasn't
"We've known that we have unsafe levels of mercury in
our rivers and lakes for 30 years," said Keith Reopelle,
program director for the environmental advocacy group
Environmental Decade. "We feel they should reduce emissions
by 90 percent in 10 years."
What's the source?
The split on a solution stems from the dispute over the
source of mercury found in Wisconsin's waterways. Industry
representatives insist that as much as 90% is generated
outside Wisconsin. Environmental groups, echoing the DNR,
say as much as half comes from plants inside the state.
"Unless our state DNR can figure out a way to impose
rules on China and Louisiana and elsewhere, I don't see
how these rules are going to have any effect here," Schoepke
said, voicing an argument Buchsbaum characterized as absurd.
"China's mercury is not making a beeline for Wisconsin,"
said Buchsbaum, who heads the federation's Great Lakes
Protection and Restoration Project in Ann Arbor, Mich.
"They're trying to point a finger at someone else so they
don't have to take action."
Although it is at the forefront, Wisconsin isn't the
only state pushing for reductions in mercury emissions,
said Buchsbaum and the DNR. And efforts in Wisconsin,
they said, are likely to reinforce those elsewhere.
"It puts us in a much better position to advocate at
the national level," said Caroline Garber, chief of the
DNR's environmental studies section.
"We believe this will have some effect - we wouldn't
be doing it if we didn't," Garber said. "The real issue
is that this bioaccumulates over time, and the sooner
you start reducing it, the better we're going to be."
Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Oct.