Power Plant Mercury Emissions Poisoning the Great Lakes

Swanksalot, via Flickr

by Thom Cmar, via NRDC’s Switchboard

This week we released a report, Poisoning the Great Lakes: Mercury Emissions from Coal Fired Power Plants in the Great Lakes Region, which highlights the impacts of mercury emissions from Great Lakes power plants on the people, fish, birds, and wildlife of our region.  EPA recently issued new nationwide Mercury and Air Toxics Standards that require power plants to cut their mercury emissions by 90% on average, as well as to make similar cuts to their emissions of arsenic, lead, acid gases, and other toxic air pollution.

Our report focuses on the 144 coal-fired power plants in the Great Lakes region, and names the 25 worst emitters, which were responsible for putting over 7,000 pounds of mercury into the air in 2010.  Mercury emissions from power plants in the Great Lakes region account for close to 25% of the nation’s mercury emissions total.  Mercury is so highly toxic that exposure to even very small amounts in fish has serious implications for public health, and especially our children’s health.  And mercury fish consumption advisories depress the Great Lakes’ multi-billion dollar fishing economy.

Mercury is a dangerous brain poison that doesn’t belong in our Great Lakes. It puts the health of kids and pregnant women at risk and adds an unwelcome danger to eating what our fishermen catch. That’s why it is so important that we support the EPA’s standards to reduce mercury pollution by holding polluters accountable.  Even more critical is that every single US Senator from the region stand up for the Lakes by rejecting reckless attempts to derail the long overdue Clean Air Act updates that can help tame this problem.

EPA’s authority to adopt these critical safeguards goes back to 1990, when the first President Bush signed amendments to the Clean Air Act that were passed by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in Congress and directed EPA to set standards on major sources such as power plants.   But now, twenty-two years later, Congress is seeking to roll back these and other basic provisions of the Clean Air and Clean Water Act that have protected our health and environment for decades.

Next week we expect that there will be a vote in the U.S. Senate on a resolution that would void EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards and permanently block EPA from re-issuing similar safeguards.  At stake in this vote are the thousands of lives that would be saved every year by the EPA standards and the hundreds of thousands of avoided respiratory illnesses and lost work days.

Many power companies support EPA’s standards, along with doctors, nurses, scientists, and public health professionals.  We have all known for years that these standards were imminent, and many companies have already invested millions to reduce their mercury and toxic air emissions.  Meanwhile, other industries have worked hard to clean up their own pollution.  Rolling back EPA’s power plant standards now would unfairly penalize companies that have invested money to modernize their plants, while granting amnesty to the laggards that disregarded the law and kept polluting and harming our children’s health.  Many of the plants have been operating for decades without modern pollution controls.  It’s long overdue for these polluters to clean up their act and stop demanding that we subsidize their plants with our lungs.

Thom Cmar is an attorney at the National Resources Defense Council. This piece was originally published at Switchboard and is reprinted with permission.

15 Responses to Power Plant Mercury Emissions Poisoning the Great Lakes

  1. Sasparilla says:

    Lets see, the GOP with less than a majority in the Senate has been able to block Democratic votes for nearly anything (often preventing actual votes from happening).

    Now GOP Sen. Inhofe is able to put a bill up for votes to eviscerate the EPA in the Democratically controlled Senate? The Dems should be able to kill this (filibuster if nothing else).

    Is this a real danger to being passed in the Senate? Anyone know? Or is this just a whip up the base article about something that doesn’t have a chance of actually passing and isn’t really a danger (till the GOP is in control)?

  2. BillD says:

    Anyone who does a Google Scholar search under “mercury and biomagnification” gets almost 10,000 hits in less that 0.2 sec. These are peer reviewed, data based studies from over the past 50+ years. Mercury gets really concentrated, magnified and accumlated in large predatory fish, to values often 1,000s of times higher than in plankton. Many Republicans think that the EPA is not basing their regs on science. Is there a rule that to be a Republican senator, you could not have taken a basic biology class in college and that you have ignore science?

  3. Zimzone says:

    I’ve watched our lakes in MN go from clear, clean fresh water to what looks like sludge.

    Toxic warnings, invasive species, acid rain, phosphate runoff, lake cabin sewage runoff and over fished and under stocked practices have devolved our beautiful lakes into sewage lagoon ponds.

    Canadian power plants have been among the worst, given the prevailing northern winds.

    And now the dumbest congresscritter in office, Inhofe, wants to roll back the meager protections we have in place. Oklahoma, how much longer are you going to allow this rube in office? Time is running out…

  4. Comrade Rutherford says:

    “Is there a rule that to be a Republican senator, you could not have taken a basic biology class in college and that you have ignore science?”

    The Republican rule is that the higher the office, the more ignorant you have to be. In order to be a Republican President you have to believe the Ketchup is a vegetable or cutting taxes stimulates growth.

  5. facts lean left says:

    There is a rule (of nature) that in order to be a conservative, you have to belong to the below-average half of the population.

  6. Monkey Gangster says:

    No kidding,this has been going on for decades coal burning plants are poisoning the oceans also, don’t eat Tuna Fish,Sword Fish,or Shark.They are all toxic waste dumps filled with mercury from coal fired plants.

  7. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Sasparilla (every time I see your monicker, I’m reminded of ‘California’ in the Hopalong Cassidy movies, Gord bless ‘im)I think the answer is pretty easy to discern. The Demopublicans and Republicrats are, at root (if you’ll pardon the expression) the two wings of the Business Owned Party. They always co-operate to the benefit of their plutocratic owners. Indeed, most are rich men and women themselves. Certainly they put on a lovely show of competition, but it’s just bluff, designed to fool the credulous.

  8. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    They have degrees in ‘Faith-Based Science’. Not faith in the Lord God Almighty, athough they invoke Him at every opportunity. No, that ‘God’ is just their ego-projection, hence He’s not a friendly deity. Their God is Greed, and their motto ‘In Greed We Trust’.

  9. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I fondly remember a cartoon from an earlier geological epoch, when the moral insanity and intellectual poison of ‘neo-liberalism’ was just beginning to work its society and civilization destroying ‘magic’ in this country. A group of Rightwing politicians were milling about, clearly blind, as their dark glasses and white canes indicated. A father was warning his young son, that ‘That’s what you get from too much stimulating of the private sector’.

  10. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    George Carlin said something similar.
    The politicians are put there to give you the idea you have freedom of choice.

  11. Joan Savage says:

    Ingested methyl-mercury is more toxic than inhaled mercury. After the airborne mercury from coal-fired plants is washed out of the air into the water and soil, mercury-tolerant microbes ingest the mercury and metabolize it to the more toxic form, methyl mercury. From the microbes the methyl-mercury works its way through food chains, either an aquatic food chain into fish and shellfish or through soil biota into other organisms. Songbirds in the Adirondacks have been found to contain mercury.

    We are subsidizing coal-fired plants with our brains, liver and bone marrow, not just our lungs.

  12. Joan Savage says:

    Oh, how could I forget reproductive organs as well.

  13. Mike Schmitt says:

    The photo with this article is the Fisk Generating Station located on the near south side of Chicago. This plant will be closed down this year in no small part due to the efforts of the members of the local community known as Pilsen.

  14. Texas Aggie says:

    In addition to the mercury that settles out of the air, runoff from the slag at mining sites contributes to the total amount in the Great Lakes. In 1974 you were advised to eat no more than one meal a week of salmon from the Great Lakes, and pregnant women were advised to abstain completely. I don’t want to know how bad the situation is now.

  15. Gilbert EngageAmerica says:

    We’ve done a really good job being progressive on our environmental policies. we’ve done such a good job actually that we’ve kept so many people safe, from working. Without a doubt the protection from mercury needs our attention, but while we’re doing that it’s important to note the places who need to comply with these new rules will face an uphill battle in becoming compliant which usually means that they are forced to either slash jobs or close their facilities ( This is a rough time period on both sides, developing a relationship between EPA and businesses is crucial to our recovery and our safety.