Energy & Environment

Mercury Madness

States' efforts to crack down on the toxic metals that industry spews into the air and water are being sabotaged.
by | June 2004

Tom Arrandale

Tom Arrandale is a GOVERNING correspondent.

As a longtime Wisconsin angler, there's not much George Meyer recalls with more satisfaction than taking his daughter fishing for walleye. But what wasn't pleasant was telling her that it wouldn't be healthy to dine on their catch more than one meal a month. That's because Wisconsin's 15,000 picturesque lakes were laced with mercury. "That just shouldn't happen," Meyer says. "This is a real personal issue for me."

At least George Meyer got the chance to do something about it. He served eight years as former Governor Tommy Thompson's secretary of natural resources. During his tenure, Wisconsin established a comprehensive campaign to keep mercury from accumulating at dangerous concentrations in the air and water. But now, to Meyer's frustration, Washington is sabotaging state efforts to finish the job, a job that entails cracking down on the mercury that coal-burning electric power plants spew into the atmosphere.

For the past couple of years, the federal government has ignored state concerns by giving electric utilities the benefit of the doubt about curbing their contributions to regional smog and global warming. Now it has shrugged off state environmental agencies that have moved to deal with the dangers that mercury emissions pose to human health and the natural environment. Mercury occurs naturally, but coal combustion, solid waste incinerators and throwaway consumer products release toxic concentrations of the metal into the air and water.

Wisconsin is one of 20 states that posts statewide mercury warnings cautioning consumers against eating too many fish from their waters. Altogether, 44 states have found that mercury has built up in some watersheds to a point that threatens aquatic life and accumulates in the flesh of game fish. What's more, there's convincing evidence that 600,000 human babies born in the nation every year are at risk of learning difficulties and nervous system damage because they're exposed to mercury in their mothers' wombs. That's the main reason Wisconsin and many other states established programs in the 1990s to eliminate potential contamination by replacing or recycling mercury- bearing thermometers, thermostats, automobile switches, and medical and dental devices and materials.

Those steps have helped, but they don't deal with the most pervasive mercury contamination: Coal-fired electric-generation plants emit 48 tons of mercury annually, lofting a toxic heavy metal downwind to settle across residential neighborhoods, lakes and rivers. Control technology is readily available for electric utilities, but federal regulators have dawdled more than a decade over setting limits for coal-burning boilers. Instead, the Bush administration listened to utility lobbyists in coming up with a lenient standard coupled with a faulty emissions-trading scheme that would leave too much mercury in the air.

As with other air-quality issues, states meanwhile have stepped in with more useful proposals. Iowa has ordered a new power plant to install an activated-carbon system to remove 83 percent of mercury from its emissions. Connecticut has enacted a law ordering all generating stations to cut mercury 90 percent by 2008. New Jersey is setting the same goal; Massachusetts is aiming for 95 percent removal by 2012. Before Meyer retired three years ago, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources proposed a 90 percent cutback in mercury emissions from the state's industries.

Wisconsin's DNR has responsibility both for preserving the state's fish and wildlife and for regulating pollution to protect the state's 5.5 million human inhabitants. That structure instills the kind of comprehensive perspective that environmental agencies need to nurture. Governments now are coping with pervasive pollutants such as mercury that disperse incrementally through the air and accumulate wherever they settle. To clean those up, they'll need broader political support, not just from green-group activists but also from hunters and fishermen who are politically conservative but care deeply about what's happening to their states' land, air and water.

Earlier this year, Ducks Unlimited, Trout Unlimited and other groups persuaded the White House to reconsider the administration's policies on protecting the nation's dwindling wetlands. The National Wildlife Federation has led environmental organizations that are pressuring Michael Leavitt, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator, to reconsider the agency's mercury regulation. After retiring from government, George Meyer began working as director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, which represents 75,000 hunters, fishermen, trappers and others who regard polluted air and water as menaces to their outdoor pursuits and to human health. "When these people talk, politicians tend to listen more," Meyer says. "In Wisconsin, mercury has always been both a green and a blaze-orange issue."


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