Federal tests find harmful mercury in area waterways
|By Jeff Alexander
CHRONICLE STAFF WRITER WITH WIRE SERVICE REPORTS
Nestled among lush woods, cottages and the Owasippe Scout Reservation, Big Blue Lake is one of the last places you would expect to find fish containing dangerous levels of mercury.
There are no obvious sources of mercury pollution within miles of the picturesque lake -- no factories, power plants or medical waste incinerators. No matter: The pollution comes from above.
Mercury discharged into the air by 1,100 coal-burning power plants in the United States, trash incinerators and chlorine production facilities can be transported long distances on wind currents, eventually settling in lakes and rivers. The toxic metal can cause neurological and developmental problems in young children; mercury accumulates in fish and can be passed in the womb from mother to fetus.
An environmental group's analysis of government fish sampling data ranked 170 of 218 Michigan lakes and rivers where fish contained mercury levels high enough to raise safety concerns. Between 1984 and 2003, the state Department of Environmental Quality tested for mercury levels in four types of game fish: walleye, northern pike, largemouth bass and smallmouth bass.
Fish in Big Blue Lake had the highest mercury levels among lakes sampled in West Michigan, according to the Michigan Environmental Council's analysis of state data. No area lakes were in the Top 10 of most contaminated among the 218 waterways sampled.
The MEC released the data as part of its campaign for tougher mercury emission controls at coal-fired plants.
"Coal-burning power plants remain the largest point source of uncontrolled mercury emissions in the U.S.," said David Gard, an energy policy specialist at the MEC. "We're trying to build support for reducing mercury emissions at power plants. We know that if we reduce mercury emissions at the source, it will reduce the load on inland lakes."
In Michigan, 57 percent of electricity is generated by coal-burning power plants, according to state data. Local coal-fired power plants include the B.C. Cobb facility in Muskegon, the Grand Haven Board of Light's Sims power plant and the J.H. Campbell facility in Port Sheldon. The study did not specifically link mercury pollution to any of those facilities.
Officials at Consumers Energy, the state's largest electric utility and owner of the Cobb and Campbell power plants, said slashing mercury emissions is difficult when demand for electricity is increasing. The utility is working with state officials studying ways to reduce mercury emissions, Consumers spokesman Roger Morgenstern said.
"Consumers is not sitting idly by. We are looking at new technologies and we will work with regulators as they develop new standards," Morgenstern said. "Consumers, and the Cobb plant, will comply with whatever the government mandates" for mercury emissions.
Morgenstern said tests are currently under way to determine the amount of mercury emitted at Consumers' coal-fired power plants.
Primary mercury sources include coal-burning power plants, the burning of hazardous and medical waste and production of chlorine. It also occurs naturally in the environment.
In West Michigan, fish with elevated mercury concentrations were found in Muskegon and Bear lakes, in Muskegon County; Hess and Bills lakes, in Newaygo County; the mouth of the Grand River, in Grand Haven; and Hamlin and Pere Marquette lakes, near Ludington, according to the MEC report.
Mercury has found its way into rivers and lakes, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said that almost 400,000 babies are born in the United States annually at risk of neurological damage due to mercury exposure, chiefly as a result of their mothers having eaten contaminated fish.
The EPA is supposed to be developing a plan that would require power plants to reduce mercury emissions 70 percent by 2018. Critics of that plan contend the federal Clean Air Act requires a 90 percent reduction by 2008.
Despite an earlier promise, EPA Administrator Michael O. Leavitt hasn't yet ordered new studies to help resolve a controversy over controlling mercury emissions.
Critics, within and outside EPA, say Leavitt's failure thus far to order the studies he promised suggests the administration is still reluctant to do its own analysis for fear that the results will justify deeper and faster reductions than the agency favors.
"We get talk but no action from the administrator," said a longtime EPA staffer who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Decisions about the proposed regulation were made before he came to EPA. He has been here for almost a year and the agency has still not done the work that is necessary to produce a better regulation."
© 2004 Muskegon Chronicle. Used with permission