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Great Lakes Article:

Tests of rainfall find high mercury levels

Milwaukee readings far exceed EPA safe level, report says

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 rivers.

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 be negligible.

"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 levels.

"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 aggressive enough.

"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. 3, 2001.
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