Power Plant Mercury Emissions Poisoning the Great Lakes

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.