Raining mercury

To paraphrase a song from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, "The mercury drops keep falling on our heads …"

The National Wildlife Federation reported in a study released last week that the Great Lakes Region is "being poisoned by the mercury in rain, snow and other precipitation."

Among the areas most affected is Detroit, where tests revealed mercury contamination as high as 65 times the Environmental Protection Agency standard, according to the report. Only Kenosha, Wis., recorded a higher level with tests showing 73 times the EPA standard.

"The impacts of this mercury-contaminated rain are enormous," stated the report. "Mercury is a potent neurotoxin in people and wildlife. It can cause subtle but permanent neurological and brain damage at very low doses; at higher levels, it can cripple and kill."

Emissions from coal-fired power plants, incinerators and manufacturers of chlorine and caustic soda were cited as the primary sources of mercury.

Coal-fired power plants, estimated to contribute 33 percent of the mercury found in rainwater, are the single largest source of contamination. Those power plants, in combination with municipal incinerators and medical waste incinerators, combine to produce more than 60 percent of the mercury contamination, according to the report.

Pollution of the state’s fisheries is of particular concern. "Since 1988, mercury-contaminated fish have resulted in the Michigan Department of Public Health issuing statewide fish advisories for all of Michigan’s 11,000 inland lakes. This is a devastating situation, considering Michigan’s economic dependence on its anglers, who spend over $1.8 billion per year."

Deregulation of the state’s electric utility industry is adding to the problem, said Julie Metty, a water quality expert for the National Wildlife Foundation. Cuts in energy efficiency and similar programs have compounded the need for more power, she said. The result is increased reliance on older, coal-burning power plants, which, according to the report, "enjoy economic advantages over newer plants because they are exempt from Clean Air Act requirements for meeting stricter air pollution standards."

"Any deregulation proposal must include mechanisms to fund energy efficiency programming, incorporate renewable resources, and provide billing disclosure information," according to the report.

The issue of deregulation also came up last week in a report released by the Michigan Environmental Council, which is calling on the state Legislature to enact a utility restructuring law that "ends Michigan’s dependence on environmentally dangerous coal and gives a boost to new, clean alternatives."

According to MEC policy director James Clift, older power plants benefit from a loophole in the Clean Air Act that allows them to pollute at rates three to seven times higher than modern facilities

"Electric deregulation is an environmental issue," said Clift.

Sikes Boyd, director of environmental management and resources for Detroit Edison, disagrees.

"I don’t see where the two have to be combined," said Boyd, who argued that state and federal environmental regulators already provide adequate protections. Likewise, Boyd disputed the contention that mercury fallout from Midwest utilities is polluting Michigan’s lakes.

"This is a global issue," said Boyd, who pointed to gold mining operations in South America as just one example of mercury pollution that has far-reaching effects.

Moreover, although he did not disagree with the contention that power plants are a significant source of mercury, he disputed the National Wildlife Federation’s claim that mercury from those plants is showing up in fish to any significant degree.

Finally, Boyd argued that levels of mercury being found in fish are not as dangerous as environmentalists and some scientists contend.