Environmental, parent, angler and health groups across the state of Minnesota have banded together and formed Mercury Free Minnesota, a coalition dedicated to reducing mercury in the environment, and safeguarding future generations. Amid a torrent of concern over mercury pollution and recent federal reports that find dangerously high mercury levels in fetuses and infants, groups across the state of Minnesota are urging the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to tighten restrictions on mercury emissions.
All three Lake Superior states (Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan) advise children and women who may become pregnant to limit the fish they eat from any lake within these states. The need for such advice is clear; a 2001 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 10 percent of U.S. women of childbearing years now have mercury in their bodies at levels that may affect a developing fetus.
The EPA has released new air pollution regulations, which ignore the threats of mercury and asbestos pollution from the taconite industry. These regulations fly in the face of the Clean Air Act. Not only does the Act stipulate that the taconite industry must be regulated, it says that the deadline for doing so was three years ago. So not only do the new regulations fail to govern the taconite industry, they are being issued years past the deadline.
The taconite industry is the largest source of mercury emissions in the Lake Superior basin. According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, in 2000 Minnesota’s taconite industry released 758 POUNDS of mercury. Minnesota enacted a voluntary mercury reduction program in 1999, but not one taconite producer agreed to reduce emissions or even look into the research and development of mercury control technology.
In response to this governmental failure, Minnesota environmental groups are suing the EPA.The National Wildlife Federation is spearheading efforts to convince the EPA to tighten its belt on the taconite industry. Northern Minnesota groups including the Minnesota Conservation Federation, Lake Superior Alliance, and Save Lake Superior Association have joined as co-plaintiffs in the effort.
The plaintiffs would like to see an emissions limit that would push the industry to research and develop control technology but also allow for relief if a company is unable to meet the standard after diligently pursuing such technology. As it stands now, there is a disincentive for any research or development by the industry.
Neither federal nor Minnesota law sets limits on the amount of mercury that these facilities can emit, and current air permits do not prevent increases in mercury emissions. Although Minnesota’s 10-year-old product legislation has resulted in a decline in mercury from intentional uses, many products that contain mercury continue to be sold and used. When these products are left in the waste stream, they can release mercury during incineration, evaporation, or directly into water.
Because mercury is harmful in such small amounts, the safe level for people and wildlife is approximately the same as the natural background level. Reducing mercury to background levels requires a phase out of mercury releases from all major human sources. It takes only one teaspoon of mercury to contaminate an entire 20-acre lake. Coal-burning power plants release 48 tons of the metal into the atmosphere each year in the U.S. There is a proposal from the Bush administration on the table right now that would allow “dirty” plants to buy credits from clean ones to avoid or delay installing mercury control technology. These utilities argue that they don’t have the money to install the technology, and want to buy more time.
EPA’s own analysis in 2001 found that using the strongest pollution control technology currently available, not the “cap and trade” system mentioned above, could reduce emissions 90% by 2008. The current proposal will not reduce emissions even 70%; and is not scheduled to get there until 2018 or later. This ten-year delay in mercury clean-up is a violation of the Clean Air Act and will endanger millions of Americans.
For more information, visit the Mercury Free Minnesota’s website at www.mercuryfreemn.org and the Great Lakes Directory’s “Children’s Health and Environmental Toxins” Issue Page at www.greatlakesdirectory.org.