Mercury Pollution: More Is Less?
By Thomas P. Healy
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - Once again the Daniels administration has opted to protect the financial interests of polluters at the expense of public health. The most recent evidence was the Indiana Air Pollution Control Board’s (APCB) 11-1 vote at its Oct. 3 meeting to adopt the minimum federal Clean Air Mercury Rule (CAMR).
Under terms of the rule, Indiana-based coal-fired power plants might cut mercury emissions by 66 percent by 2018. The key word is “might” because a provision known as “cap-and-trade” allows plant operators to bank and/or sell emission credits, which would stretch out actual compliance to 2025 or even beyond.
“Given the known toxicity of mercury and the known health effects — especially on children and pregnant women — and increasing scientific evidence that mercury gets into the environment and spreads in ecosystems quickly, I felt the stronger rule was appropriate,” he said.
It’s no surprise that a Duke Energy representative was on the list of energy industry leaders who met in secret with Vice President Dick Cheney’s Energy Task Force in 2001. In its August 2003 report to Congress on the Energy Task Force, the U.S. General Accounting Office found that the national energy policy was the product of a centralized, top-down process. “Officials and staff met with, solicited input from, or received information and advice from nonfederal energy stakeholders, principally petroleum, coal, nuclear, natural gas, and electricity industry representatives and lobbyists,” the report stated.
One thing clearly known is that environmental justice is not an active policy in George Bush’s EPA. A report by the Office of Inspector General found that “in 2001, the Agency restated its commitment to environmental justice in a manner that does not emphasize minority and low-income populations.”
Since these communities were found to be more likely to live around older, dirtier power plants, in 1994 President Bill Clinton issued Executive Order 12898, “Federal Action to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations,” designed, the report stated, “to ensure such populations are not subjected to a disproportionately high level of environmental risk.”
In a 2004 Center for Progressive Regulation white paper, “Mercury, Risk and Justice,” author Catherine A. O’Neill writes that the adoption of CAMR’s cap-and-trade provisions will likely exacerbate mercury levels in some areas of the country, especially the Great Lakes region. She writes that exposure will be borne “disproportionately by Native Americans, Asian-Americans, other communities of color and low-income communities in this and other regions of the country who eat large amounts of mercury-contaminated fish. … Because humans are exposed to methyl mercury primarily through fish consumption, groups that eat the most fish are disproportionately at risk.”
Indiana’s Department of Health has issued a fish consumption advisory for nearly all the waters in the State but the Department of Natural Resources has not been required to post signs and relies instead on Web notices, which are unlikely to reach those who need the information the most.
Mercury exposure poses a risk of developmental problems and learning disabilities in children. Nevertheless, despite pleas from groups like the March of Dimes, the Indiana Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association, and Improving Kids’ Environment to safeguard the health of children, the APCB rep from the Department of Health consistently voted against stronger protections.
Yet another Inspector General’s report, “Monitoring Needed to Assess Impact of EPA’s CAMR on Potential Hotspots,” declares, “Results from the Steubenville Study, a multiyear study in the Ohio River Valley, found that approximately 70 percent of mercury wet deposition at Steubenville, Ohio, in 2003 and 2004 was attributable to local/regional coal combustion sources, predominantly from utility boilers.”
Thomas P. Healy is a journalist in Indianapolis. He can be reached at [email protected]