Christian Science Monitor
April 29, 2004


Heavy reliance on coal is boosting mercury levels. How should
the US limit emissions from the power industry?

By Mark Clayton

John Ament likes to go fishing, but these days he doesn't eat the bass
he catches at Caddo Lake, his much-loved family retreat. Too much
mercury in them, he says. Texas authorities agree.

That's why they have issued a mercury warning for fish caught in
Caddo, the Lone Star State's largest natural lake and one of its most
beautiful with ancient-looking cypress trees dripping Spanish moss.

Mr. Ament's lament is being felt nationwide. In 2002 at least 43
states issued mercury warnings for fish covering 12 million acres of
lakes and 400,000 miles of rivers. In January, the United States
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warned that 1 in 6 women of
childbearing age had mercury levels in her blood that could put a
fetus's development at risk.

The reason for the rise in mercury contamination, many suspect, is the
nation's heavy reliance on coal. Emissions from electric utility
plants represent the single largest unregulated industrial source of
mercury emissions in the US, according to the EPA. Some 500 power
plants pump out 60 percent (45 tons) of the 75 tons of mercury
released into the air by all industries that year, according to the
EPA's 2001 Toxic Release Inventory.But environmentalists charge that
plans to clamp down on the problem have been undermined by the White
House, which says that it favors a more flexible market-oriented

When mercury is expelled from smokestacks, and falls to earth as
particles or in rain, it sinks into lake and river sediment. Then
bacteria and plants absorb methyl mercury into the food chain - with
predator fish, loons, osprey, and humans consuming the highest and
potentially most harmful concentrations. Even though mercury has been
a regulated air toxin for 35 years, it is not currently controlled in
power plants.

Last fall a federal advisory committee on power-plant mercury was on
the verge of recommending cuts of up to 90 percent in utility mercury
emissions and a cap of five tons for the industry by 2008. But the
Bush administration sidestepped the task force, proposing an
alternative "cap and trade" approach that would reduce mercury
emissions 70 percent by 2018.

A similar cap-and-trade approach has earned kudos for cutting other
power-plant pollutants, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. But
critics argue mercury is different - a toxin whose presence must be
cut quickly. Environmentalists say that six to seven times more
mercury would enter the environment under Bush's plan compared to the
more stringent plan.

"The problem is that you want mercury as a toxic pollutant to be
reduced, not just traded to someplace far away," says Tom Nathan, a
mercury expert with the National Environmental Trust who was a member
of the EPA advisory committee on mercury. "If they don't clean up, you
end up with hot spots like Florida's Everglades. Allowing a Florida
utility to trade with a Massachusetts plant doesn't do Florida much

The EPA's new approach is generating considerable political heat. A
number of state attorneys general, mainly from the East Coast, along
with environmental groups are expected to submit rebuttals to the EPA
mercury plan by Friday - the deadline for public comment.

Long-term impact

"Mercury is an important issue, one that needs addressing," says Barry
Bennick, co-owner of the Pine Needle Lodge on the shores of Caddo
Lake. "My concern is not about how mercury affects us today or [in
the] next couple of years, but how it will affect this lake 50 years
from now."

Caddo's game fish have become dangerously laden with mercury since a
bevy of power plants sprang up in counties nearby after World War II,
Mr. Ament says. Most plants burn soft brown lignite found just below
the surface - a type of coal with the highest mercury content in the
US, according to the US Geological Survey.

Ament and some scientists see a connection between mercury in Caddo
fish and the mercury in electric utility plumes blowing over Caddo.
That's why he and seven other residents sued four nearby power plants
last summer to get them to scrub mercury from their emissions.

About 30 miles from Caddo, in Titus County, is the Monticello Steam
Electric Station, the third largest mercury-emitting power plant in
the US and No. 1 in Texas in 2001. Monticello, along with three other
plants also named in the suit, pumped nearly 2 tons of mercury into
the air in 2001, according to the EPA.

But the largest of Monticello's three units has a scrubber to reduce
sulfur dioxide that also cuts some of the mercury output, according to
TXU Corp., a multinational company in Dallas than owns the plant. "TXU
has an excellent record protecting the environment and ... doing more
than is required by state and federal regulations," says Drew Douglas,
a TXU spokesman. "While no mercury regulations exist today for power
plants, TXU continues to cooperate with EPA as it develops

And with respect to Caddo Lake mercury, he says there's no evidence
"to link emissions from any TXU power plants to any mercury
contamination." He adds that "there is no evidence that the plaintiffs
have suffered any harm from any power-plant emissions."

Neither his assurances nor the EPA cap-and-trade proposal comforts
Karen Hadden, executive director of Texas Public Interest Research.
She says Texas already leads the nation in utility mercury output,
emitting 8,992 pounds of mercury into the air in 2001. "We're the
worst," she says. "But under the cap-and-trade proposal, we would not
get the cleanup we need. The utilities here would buy their way out of
putting in controls rather than installing them. That's why we urge a
90 percent reduction at all plants and in a timely manner by 2008."

EPA officials deny they are getting set to impose a soft rule.
Voluminous input has been taken from the public as well as industry,
says William Wehrum, counsel to the assistant administrator of the EPA
office of air and radiation, which develops air regulations.

"We're excited about the prospect of cap-and-trade with mercury," Mr.
Wehrum says. "By doing it at the same time we are limiting other
pollutants ... we believe it will lead to significant improvements in
public health and sweeping and significant reductions in pollution
from power plants across the board."

Wildlife advocates across the country are watching with interest. In
Maine, there is concern that the haunting call of the loon echoing
across the state's lakes could be lost if something isn't done soon.
Power-plant emissions from the Ohio Valley are carried by winds across
New England. Mercury in rain and snow has intensified concentrations
in the region's lakes - where loons breed.

'Lethargic' loons

About 30 percent of the loon population in Maine has extra high levels
of mercury, says Wing Goodale of the BioDiversity Research Institute
in Falmouth, Maine. As a top predator, loons accumulate mercury by
eating larger fish heavy with mercury.

"We are seeing decreased productivity, the ability to raise young - a
40 percent drop in their ability to raise young," Dr. Goodale says.
"The birds become lethargic."

Loons live up to 30 years, begin breeding when they are seven years
old, and hatch only two eggs every few years. The result could be a
sudden die-off. "We've seen quick reductions in blood mercury when
emissions have been reduced," Goodale says. "The levels start to
decrease right away. So it's important to reduce emissions now, today,
because we can get a response in the environment fairly quickly."

Of the top 10 mercury-emitting plants in the nation in 2001, three
belong to American Electric Power, the nation's largest utility, based
in Columbus, Ohio. But a company spokesman says progress on mercury
emissions is already being made by installing pollution-reduction
equipment aimed at nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide.

A case in point is the power plant with the 10th highest mercury
emissions in the nation in 2001 - the huge, AEP 2,600-megawatt Gavin
Plant in Cheshire, Ohio, which reported 950 pounds of mercury output.
That same year, however, a new control system for NOX was installed.
The next year, mercury dropped to 656 pounds. Last year, mercury fell
to 527 pounds although more electricity was produced.

Still, the company was forced to buy the town for $20 million from
residents who complained bitterly about ground-level smog after the
new equipment was installed.

Back at Caddo Lake, however, there's no such panic over the mercury
threat - just a determination to make a change. Property values have
actually risen at the far western end of the lake, so the damage from
mercury is hard to see, Ament admits.

"I'm not so much personally concerned about this because I never
intend to sell this place," Ament says of his cottage. "But if word
gets out that there's mercury contamination here, people will just
back away. They won't want anything to do with this lake."

Top mercury producers

These power plants emitted the most mercury into the air in 2001,
according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Plant Location Total
air emissions (in pounds)

1. Reliant Energies Inc. Keystone Power Plant Shelocta, Pa. 1,806

2. Mt. Storm Power Station (Dominion Resources, Inc.) Mount Storm,
W.V. 1,400

3. TXU Monticello Steam Electric Station & Lignite Mine Mount
Pleasant, Texas 1,303

4. American Electric Power Rockport Plant Rockport, Ind. 1,300

5. Jeffrey Energy Center Saint Marys, Kan. 1,149

6. Limestone Electric Generating Station Jewett, Texas 1,100

7. American Electric Power H.W. Pirkey Power Plant Hallsville, Texas

8. Martin Lake Steam Electric Station & Lignite Mine Tatum, Texas

9. Alabama Power Co. Miller Steam Plant Quinton, Ala. 956

10. American Electric Power Gavin Plant Cheshire, Ohio 950