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!





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