A Front Row Seat for the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards

BY ON December 22, 2011
Dr. Stacy Small-Lorenz, Sarah Castleberry and her son

Dr. Stacy Small-Lorenz on the left, with colleague Sarah Castleberry and her son, in the front row at National Children’s Hospital for yesterday’s announcement of the new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards.

 

This is a guest post by Dr. Stacy L. Small-Lorenz, Conservation Scientist for Environmental Defense Fund:

Yesterday, I received the best holiday gift an expectant mother could wish for.

I had the privilege of sitting in the front row at National Children’s Hospital, along with several mothers of small children and esteemed physicians, when EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson announced the historic Mercury and Air Toxics Standards.

The new standards will cut mercury and other toxic emissions from coal-fired power plants, using proven and readily available technology. Mercury is a potent poison that can cause permanent, and often progressively debilitating neuro-developmental disorders in fetuses, children, and adults.

As a soon-to-be mother, I am thrilled about EPA’s new rule because it will significantly reduce the levels of mercury in our environment and food supply. I want my child’s ability to see, hear, walk, feel and learn to be unaffected by mercury.

As a professional wildlife ecologist, I also deeply appreciate that we will drastically cut the levels of mercury and other pollutants that bio-accumulate up the food chain from microorganisms to fish to birds and mammals that eat them (including humans!).

And while false claims are being circulated in the media this week about the lack of benefit from reducing mercury emissions, scientists have weighed in loud and clear about mercury’s harmful effects and the need for a strong mercury rule.

This issue is especially personal to me. I grew up in a beautiful small town perched on a river bluff overlooking the Ohio River, in an industrial region of Southwestern Pennsylvania. However, my charming and historic small town — with its many parks, schools, and churches –was situated within sight and breathing range of a coal-fired power plant, the world’s largest zinc smelter, an oil refinery, several steel mills and foundries, a couple of plastics factories, and a synthetic rubber plant.

Many hot summer nights, when we slept with windows open, I fell asleep holding the blankets over my face to filter the stink from the air.

In this once agricultural area, industrial pollutants like arsenic, lead, mercury, zinc, cadmium now contaminate the soils. During my childhood, residents were advised not to eat vegetables grown locally in the soil or any fish caught in the local rivers and streams. This was a hard message for my grandparents to accept, and despite laboratory tests that revealed dangerous levels of soil pollution in their garden, they kept growing, cooking, canning, and eating their own homegrown vegetables. Both suffered serious cancers of the digestive tract.

Mercury is poisonous stuff, and although technology exists to keep it out of the air, water, and food chain, it is still to this day being spewed into our environment. While many of the factories surrounding my hometown are now defunct and some even disassembled, the coal-fired power plant is still going strong, pumping out dangerous levels of mercury and other deadly toxins.

The AES Beaver Valley power plant, within sight of my hometown, emits 40 pounds of toxic mercury per year, plus 900 pounds of hydrochloric acid. Just a little further down river, the Bruce Mansfield plant is even deadlier, emitting 145 pounds of mercury per year and more than 390 pounds of hydrochloric acid.

These toxins go directly into my family and friends’ air, water, soil, and food chain.

I often wonder how much of this stuff accumulated in my system over the 17 years that I lived there. By moving away from home, I assumed I would be moving on to healthier places, never to permanently return to my beautiful, but polluted river valley.

But take a look at the mercury levels from power plants in other areas that I have lived since:

  • Bridgeport Station near New Haven, CT — 26 pounds of mercury per year
  • Transalta Centralia Generation near Olympia, WA — 323 pounds of mercury per year
  • City of Columbia, MO power plant — 12 pounds mercury per year
  • Mirant Potomac River plant in Alexandria, VA — 25 pounds of mercury per year

You can look up your own local coal-fired power plant (and those near your family and friends) on this Toxic Mercury Pollution Map on the Moms Clean Air Force Facebook page. Keep in mind that these annual amounts accumulate and persist over the years.

Mercury also collects in living cells and builds up in the food chain. Concentration of mercury in fish is up to ten million times higher than in water. Thus, even small amounts of mercury deposited regularly in our neighborhood lakes and streams are extremely dangerous. Coal-fired power plants also emit other extremely dangerous pollutants, like arsenic and hydrochloric acid, which will be reduced under the new rule.

So, why has it taken so long to get such a sensible rule in place? To paraphrase EPA Administrator Jackson’s words yesterday–if industry were to spend more on engineers and less on lobbyists, more on scientists and less on lawyers, then this problem could have been solved long ago. Amen.

But even with the final rule in place, the battle is not over. Already, industry lawyers who put profits before people, are lining up to sue over the ruling, and they are exerting strong political influence. One historic battle has been won, but the war on our children’s health by profit-driven polluters rages on.

Please take action on behalf of our children, families, friends, and all of the wild creatures that are counting on you. Take a moment to thank the EPA for finishing the job on the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, and please urge them to uphold it under industry pressure.

Thank you, Dr. Small-Lorenz for standing up for clean air for our children!

LEARN MORE ABOUT MERCURY:

HOW MERCURY WORKS

MERCURY Q & A

PLEASE TAKE ACTION!

TOPICS: Coal, Mercury Poisoning, Motherhood, Politics, Pollution, Science

  • Angela Sowers

    I think this is a great way to get information out to the general public to make them aware of what is going on. Too many people do not understand including government officials about the importance of science based research and the increase in morbidity in our nation due to non-action. I applaud you for your efforts! Thank you for sharing.

  • http://verizon.net Maia Celia Hernandez

    12-6-2012

    I am very happy that the scientist have come out with a clear voice massage about the Mercury and Toxic Air . The APA work to have the aprovals for better clean air.Thank you ,Dr.Stacey for been a guest to bring the good news.To have the Emvironmental notice of what the dangers of these toxics in the air that affect us all. Have a great Happy new Year you and your family And I hope geater victories will come this year.
    Maria Celia Hernandez

    • Marjorie Young

      Thank you EPA for taking this fight about mercury to a conclusion. Thank you for protecting our health. I have serious asthma and the more you clean up the more I can breathe.

      Many thanks again!!

  • BARRY

    I am absolutely for clean AIR!!!!!!!!!

  • BARRY PTAK

    Clean Air is a must!!!!!

  • Albert Rossignol

    As a CPT for many years before I became a Hospital Administrator, Clean Air was my proiority as an occupation. Being able to or Not being able to breath is something we all must be mindful of. If you have ever seen a person die for lack of the ability to breath, is the worst sight ever. We Must Have Clean Air to Survive in our World. I urge everyone to fight for the EPA to have laws to control air pollution.

  • ROBERT&MARY SWAIN

    A GREAT CAUSE.. KEEP AT IT

  • http://TheInternationalCoalitionAgainstWoodBurningPollution Ernest Grolimund

    Great article. A big step forward. But it is just one small step for mankind as the Pgh metro area probably creates 160 pounds of mercury from wood burning or more as L.A. science shows. And the mercury from stoves is everywhere. That is the motherlode for mercury and all the heavy metals and 180 air toxics like dioxin and the deadly pm2.5.

    EDF must follow the lead of the U.N. in recomending developed counties like the USA and Canada phase out all cordwood burning as modeling approved by the EPA shows even certified stoves violate pm stds 50% of the time when new, and are no better than old stoves after 1 year with the creosote buildup and all. And that is not even considering that poor operation commonly monitored, puts the pm 4 times higher from 20 mcg/m3, 24 hr conc to 80 mcg/m3 out of the stack. That is about 45 mcg/m3 or more in the air on average and in cities like Ticonderoga, NY the ave pm in the streets is 50 mcg/m3 and the pm at hotspots next to stoves is about 70 mcg/m3.

    It seems that we can’t even handle the pm from oil and gas combustion with an average city pm conc at 50 mcg/m3 before adding in the wood smoke pm. And this does not even consider the carbon black soot and methane from wood smoke destroying the world with global warming.