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What’s The Wait on Mercury?

A consensus on risk; delay on response

July 8, 2004 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Mercury is so pervasive in Michigan's aquatic environment that state officals strongly advise limiting consumption of certain fish species in virtually all of the state’s lakes and rivers.

It is undisputed and unfortunate: For decades Michigan residents have been unable to consume fish from state waters without risking serious health repercussions from exposure to mercury, a toxic heavy metal contained principally in air pollution from coal-fired power plants.

Mercury concentrates and magnifies its potency as it moves up the food chain to become deposited in the fatty tissue of fish. The dangerous toxin is so pervasive in the aquatic environment that Michigan issues official warnings each year against eating fish from any of the state’s inland lakes and reservoirs, as well as from 508 miles of rivers. Consumption of mercury-containing fish can injure the brain and nervous system, especially in children and developing fetuses.

Given the scientific consensus that has developed in the last three decades about the causes and consequences of exposure to mercury in Michigan’s environment it’s entirely appropriate to ask: What’s being done to reduce the risks? The answer, according to authorities in government, industry, and the environmental community, is a whole lot of talking. It is unclear whether any of the talk will result in effective action.

In Washington, the federal Environmental Protection Agency just concluded public comment late last month on a disputed rule change under the Clean Air Act that President George W. Bush contends will give utilities more flexibility to use new technology to limit mercury pollution. In Lansing, Governor Jennifer M. Granholm proposed phasing out manmade mercury emissions to the environment by 2020, and appointed a working group of industry, health, environmental, and state leaders to recommend ways to reach that goal. But the utility industry is concerned about the cost, and its clout in the White House, Congress, the governor’s office, and the state Legislature is so significant that authorities on all sides of the debate do not anticipate reducing mercury levels in Michigan’s environment any time soon.

Michigan Not Among States Regulating Mercury
Meanwhile other states are being much more aggressive in protecting citizens from mercury. Last year Connecticut adopted the first regulations in the nation to reduce mercury from coal-fired power plants, calling for a 90% reduction by July 2008.

Massachusetts developed a two-phase program for its four biggest polluters. By January 1, 2008, the end of the first phase, coal-fired utilities must reduce mercury by 85%. By October 1, 2012, the end of the second phase, a 95% reduction must be achieved.

Some Midwest states are also taking action. According to Zoe Lipman, program manager for the Clean Rain Campaign at the National Wildlife Federation and a member of the Michigan workgroup, Wisconsin just passed a mercury rule that requires coal-fired utilities to reduce emissions 5% by 2015. "While it’s not particularly stringent, it’s stronger than what is currently being proposed at a national level," said Ms. Lipman.

Indiana is holding hearings on a proposal for a mercury reduction rule, which arose, in part, from a citizen petition. Illinois is also in the planning stage for a mercury reduction regulation. "The upshot is that this is an issue that’s really on the front burner for people throughout the Midwest," said Ms. Lipman. "Midwest states recognize whatever happens at the federal level might not happen for a long time and may not be strong enough for the Midwest."

White House Wants A "Flexible" Plan
The Bush administration says it hopes to achieve a breakthrough at the national level with a new rule it has proposed to reduce mercury levels 70 percent by 2018. Utility executives say they like the administration’s approach because it will give them more time to comply with regulations that are less stringent than those proposed by President Bill Clinton. Before leaving office in 2000, the Clinton administration proposed reducing mercury emissions 90% by 2008, a goal that at the time the EPA said was possible using available technology.

"In our case we are a corporation and we have to be accountable to our shareholders. We have to provide them with a return on our investment so from that aspect we have to look at things from a very practical manner," said Lou Pocalujka, senior environmental planner with Consumers Energy, which favors the Bush administration’s approach.

The EPA, though, received 540,000 public comments on its new mercury proposal, most of them critical, including letters sent by 11 states that called for more stringent rules. On June 30, 2004 Governor Granholm also expressed her dissatisfaction in a letter to President Bush that urged him to reconsider the mercury rule. "We have concerns that the proposed utility mercury rule does not protect human health and the environment, is not comprehensive and responsive to specific air quality concerns, and does not include effective measures to ensure real and timely progress in attaining federal and state air quality goals and objectives," wrote the governor.

Federal Proposal Will Not Cool "Hot Spots"
Specifically, the Bush administration's proposed rule to control mercury avoids a core provision the federal Clean Air Act. Under the existing law mercury is classified as a "hazardous air pollutant," meaning that it is so dangerous industry must use the "maximum achievable control technology" -- the best technology available -- to remove it from power plant emissions.

The Bush administration, however, has decided to treat mercury as though it is not a hazardous pollutant. By classifying mercury as non-hazardous the administration and its allies in the utility industry are seeking to avoid paying for maximum control technology.

Instead, the administration proposes a system to "cap" the amount of mercury that all utilities can emit nationally, and allow companies to buy and sell "pollution credits" to reach that limit. This means that the older, dirtiest power plants can continue to admit excessive amount of mercury as long as they purchase pollution credits from cleaner, newer plants which are not producing as much pollution.

Under the cap and trade plan, the administration asserts that mercury emissions would be reduced 70 percent by 2018. Critics of the administration’s cap and trade plan say it would allow about five to seven times more mercury emissions than if the metal were regulated under current law, as the Clinton administration proposed four years ago.

They also noted that the cap and trade system would not necessarily deal with localized pollution hazards caused by mercury fallout close to existing power plants, such as what has occurred in Detroit. Detroit suffers from the worst hot spot in the country, according to Michael Shore, a researcher at Environmental Defense, a national environmental organization based in New York.

Michigan has 20 coal-burning power plants, which in 2002, the last year for accurate figures, produced a total of 2.7 tons of mercury, approximately 3% of the national total. Although Michigan has the 11th highest amount of mercury emissions in the nation, according to the EPA, it suffers from the highest localized concentration of mercury in the country.

Mr. Shore explained that the Detroit Edison plant in Monroe, along with other mercury emitting coal fueled power plants in the region, has contributed to significant mercury contamination in southeast Michigan. "At hot spots across the United States, local sources often account for 50% to 80% of the mercury deposition," said Mr. Shore in a report published last year. He said that local pollution sources account for about 80% of the mercury deposition in hot spots in Michigan.

Granholm Recognized The Hazard
Ironically, it’s Michigan’s natural heritage - its vast expanses of water and robust $2 billion-a-year recreational fishing industry - that put Michiganders at higher risk from mercury than residents of most other states. Mercury primarily reaches human beings through water. "The problem isn’t so much mercury being deposited into the ground where it doesn’t so much affect human health," said Mr. Shore, who is an expert on air quality for Environmental Defense. "Michigan is a state that has a very strong relationship to water and it’s critical for the health of our ecosystem and our children that we get mercury out of the water."

Despite fish consumption warnings in Michigan and in other states, 8 percent of women of child-bearing age have a level of mercury in their blood which could harm a developing fetus, according to the EPA. Other EPA data shows that nearly 16% of women give birth to babies that have dangerous levels of mercury in their umbilical cords.

Each year between 300,000 and 630,000 babies are born at risk of mercury-related complications, according to the EPA, and effects include impaired memory, vision, motor skills, and attention deficits. Roughly 22,000 of those babies are born in Michigan, according to Kate Madigan, the environmental advocate for the Public Interest Research Group in Michigan, a public interest advocacy group.

Even before she took office in 2003, Governor Granholm recognized the significance of mercury contamination as both a health hazard and a political issue. During the gubernatorial campaign in 2002, Ms. Granholm vowed to "phase out" mercury emissions by 2020. The question is how will the state achieve this goal since the deadline is well past the time when Governor Granholm will leave office.

The governor left that question to her mercury workgroup, which she established last year within the state Department of Environmental Quality. The panel, composed of representatives from the utility industry, environmental groups, the state Department of Environmental Quality, and other organizations, is charged with recommending reduction strategies for Michigan. The workgroup initially planned to publish its final report last March. Vinson Hellwig, chief of air quality for the DEQ and chairman of the workgroup, said he cannot commit to a new date but predicts a final report could be finished by September.

Several workgroup members said that there is a sense of urgency because they recognize that every day more mercury is being pumped into the air and water. "In order to get to a virtual elimination by 2020 we have to make significant reductions now," said Ms. Madigan. "The EPA started the process to regulate mercury 10 years ago and they still don’t have a rule in place. That’s absurd and we don’t want that to happen in Michigan."

But the group’s efforts are complicated by disagreement about exactly what the goal of their recommendations should be, according to David Gard, a policy specialist for the Michigan Environmental Council, and a workgroup member, who said he wants to figure out what is technically feasible and how soon. "We really thought the charge should have been what does the technology look like for the next couple of decades?"

Representatives of the utility industry, though, interpret their role a bit differently. They worry about the availability of new technology to control mercury and the cost. "As a representative of Consumers, part of what I have to do is an education process. There are a lot people who are coming into this process not knowing what it means to actually put these types of controls on electric power plants," said Mr. Pocalujka.

Mr. Gard acknowledges that reducing mercury will come at some cost to consumers who he estimates will probably pay one tenth of a penny more per kilowatt hour for electricity. The average consumer today pays about eight cents per kilowatt hour. "It’s a pretty small percentage of the overall bill," said Mr. Gard.

Stephanie Rudolph, a student at Haverford College and managing editor of the Bi-College News, reports and writes this summer for the Michigan Land Use Institute’s news desk. Reach her at stephanie@mlui.org

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