The U.S. Senate’s recent decision to uphold the loophole-laden Clean Air Act has environmentalists concerned about the health of Hoosiers. “Indiana has one of the largest stakes in this in the country,” said Brian Wright, coal policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council. “The federal government is taking too long to do too little to protect Hoosier health from power plant mercury emissions.”
The Senate’s ruling will allow the Clean Air Mercury Rule loophole, released by the Environmental Protection Agency on March 15, 2005, to remain in place. The rule allows small power plants across Indiana to circumvent the requirement that state distribution of mercury satisfy the EPA limit; since mercury is regulated by level per state rather than per plant under the cap-and-trade program, smaller plants can exceed their technical limit as long as the state’s revision plan complies with its mercury “budget.”
But Wright wants the cleanup to go quicker: “The EPA’s cap-and-trade program calls for a 30 percent reduction of mercury by 2010 and a 70 percent reduction by 2018, but the way things are going, it will actually be as late as 2025 before these goals are met.”
The ruling is particularly pertinent to Indiana residents, as a recent study by the Indiana Public Interest Research Group revealed that the state ranks fourth in the country in mercury emissions from smokestacks at coal-burning power plants and incinerators, falling behind only Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
IndianaPIRG, which uses data from the EPA’s 2003 Toxics Release Inventory, recently revealed that power plants in Indiana emitted 4,885 pounds of mercury that year. Indianapolis receives power from the IPL Petersburg Generating Station in Pike County, which is one of the top polluting counties in the nation.
“Scientists have found that just a gram of mercury, about one drop, deposited over the course of a year was enough to contaminate the fish in a Wisconsin lake,” said Lucinda Hohmann, field associate for IndianaPIRG.
“While we don’t know the specific health risks posed by mercury in Indiana, a study by the National Academy of Sciences reveals that as many as 60,000 children in this country could be born with birth defects each year because of pollution in the environment,” Wright said.
EPA data shows that power plants are the largest industrial source of U.S. mercury emissions. About one-third of the mercury deposited comes from power plants alone, and concentration near individual plants can be much higher since local sources account for 50 to 80 percent of mercury deposition at hot spots. Indiana receives 98 percent of its energy from plants.
In Indiana, mercury emission comes at a high cost, considering that coal-burning plants offer the state a low-cost energy source and low electricity costs that boost the national economy.
“The regulations that were supposed to be guided by health concerns are now being guided by the cost of utilities,” Wright said. “The National Wildlife Federation has found that based on EPA data and pilot projects, it would cost American households $1.92 per month to dramatically reduce mercury pollution.”
Exposure to mercury entails a wide range of health complications, from learning disabilities to developmental delays and attention deficit disorders in children, and can lead to heart attacks in adults. EPA statistics show that scientists estimate one in six women to have enough mercury in her body to put her child at risk of birth defects if she becomes pregnant.
Recommendations made by the Indiana State Department of Health’s fish consumption advisory further illustrate the risks involved. Adults are advised not to eat more than one meal of canned “white” tuna per week. For the at-risk population, which includes nursing mothers, women of childbearing age and all children under 15, the limit is one meal per month. In addition, the advisory emphasizes avoiding commercial fish such as shark, swordfish and mackerel altogether.
Wright said that a more unified call to address the issue of mercury emissions on health should be approached at a more local level. “Indiana is working on its own rule at the moment,” he said. “I think lawmakers need to hear from the public in order to be persuaded that public health comes at a higher value. I would focus on calls and letters into the Governor’s Office.”