Mercury Study

Recently published study refutes Bush administration claims on mercury Highly anticipated “Steubenville study” published this month in national scientific journal John Suttles SELC Senior Attorney Chapel Hill, NC – An EPA-funded study finds as much as 70 percent of mercury deposits in waters are emitted by local sources, contradicting the science behind EPA's flawed rule to control harmful mercury emissions. The study was published in the October 1 edition of Environmental Science and Technology, a national peer-reviewed scientific journal. "Sources of wet deposition in Eastern Ohio" finds that approximately 70 percent of mercury deposits in waters at a site in Steubenville, Ohio, which sits downwind from several major power plants, were attributable to local or regional coal and oil combustion sources, including electric utilities. The "Steubenville study" used rain samples and weather patterns to track mercury emissions from utility sources to local waters. These findings undermine the basic assumption of the Bush administration's Clean Air Mercury Rule (CAMR) that local sources only contribute about eight percent of mercury contamination in the U.S. and can therefore be controlled by a "cap-and-trade" approach that would allow mercury pollution credits to be traded between plants. Prior to the study's publication, EPA researchers concluded that the Steubenville study results were plausible, consistent with findings in similar studies, and should be duplicated. However, the agency has since disregarded the Steubenville findings, saying its Clean Air Interstate Rule to control soot- and smog-forming pollution, in combination with the Clean Air Mercury Rule, would be adequate to address mercury pollution. CAMR removes power plants from the list of mercury sources that are required to implement stricter controls and utilizes a cap and trade program to control emissions. The Steubenville study's findings that mercury deposits in local waters shows the cap and trade approach will lead to mercury "hot spots"—local and regional areas of high mercury concentrations and exposures. Under the cap and trade system, some power plants will choose to buy credits to continue emitting high levels of mercury rather than installing controls to reduce mercury pollution. As the Steubenville results show, most of the mercury emitted by those sources will deposit nearby, leading to hot spots in some areas even as pollution levels decline in others. Hot spots are a particular problem in the Southeast where the high number of old, coal-fired power plants contribute disproportionately to the nation's mercury pollution level. In fact, EPA's Office of Inspector General found that EPA has not shown CAMR will address mercury hot spots and that the agency cut funding needed to monitor and show no hot spots are occurring. Nevertheless, EPA ignored the findings of the Steubenville study, as well as the recommendations of the Office of Inspector General, when it issued its Clean Air Mercury Rule. EPA's inadequate mercury rule prompted four of the nation's most prominent public health groups, Physicians for Social Responsibility, The American Nurses Association, the American Public Health Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, to file suit against the agency last year. In addition, 14 of the nation's attorneys general and several environmental groups and Indian Tribes have filed similar legal action. EPA estimates that between 300,000 and 600,000 or more children may be born each year with unhealthy mercury levels. Mercury is a potent neurotoxin. When a pregnant woman eats mercury-contaminated fish, her developing fetus may be exposed to unsafe levels of mercury which can cause the child to suffer permanent developmental and learning disabilities, reduced IQ, and impaired motor skills. Additionally, adults who eat contaminated fish may experience heart problems, altered sensation, impaired hearing and vision, and motor disturbances.