By Jenny Kalish
Lansing Star staff writer
Following a 2010 study of air pollution, the Environmental Protection Agency will be taking new steps this December to reinforce national regulations for mercury and carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants.
Anyone who has heard of global warming surely knows the dangers of high carbon dioxide emissions to our planet. But the health risks of airborne mercury are not as well understood. “When mercury gets in the atmosphere, it rains or snows, and brings it down into the watershed. Then it runs off into the streams, and from the streams into the rivers and back into the Great Lakes and into the fish,” said Dr. Frank D’Itri, a retired fisheries and wildlife professor at Michigan State University.
You may be asking yourself: “Why is it important to regulate mercury emissions?” Anyone over 50 probably remembers breaking open an old thermometer at one point or another, and playing with the mercury inside. So why is it so terrible for us now?
Mercury can cause a variety of health issues ranging from lack of coordination to severely impaired neurological development – especially when exposed to children at young ages or during fetal development.
However, according to Kory Groetsch, toxicologist at the Michigan Department of Community Health, these risks depend largely on how much and how often a person is exposed, as well as their age and previous health conditions. “Loss of IQ is sort of the main concern. Mercury also interferes with cardiovascular function and can impair the immune system. So that can be an issue for an adult, especially someone with an immune system that may already be impaired for some reason.” Groetsch said.
Despite the fact that approximately 80 percent of the nation’s mercury emissions stem from the burning of coal, there are currently no national limits on mercury emissions and other toxic air pollution released from coal-fired power plants.
Though the EPA issued a Clean Air Mercury Rule to regulate these power plants in 2005, the rule has since been vacated by the U.S. Court of Appeals, which left no protection against mercury in the Clean Air Act. That is why the EPA has been working on drafting possible regulations for coal-fired power plants that would both reduce airborne mercury by 71 percent and carbon dioxide emissions as well, according to the agency’s website.
In a state like Michigan, where we rely so heavily on the fresh water supplied by the surrounding Great Lakes, mercury emissions from coal-fired plants can pose a serious threat to humans and the environment.
For example, according to the EPA’s website, Eckert Station, a coal-fired power plant located in Lansing, emitted more than 148 pounds of mercury into the air in 2010, which then contaminated nearby bodies of water and the aquatic life that reside in them. In fact, the Great Lakes are currently under a mercury advisory due to the way the chemical bioaccumulates up the food chain.
However, the advisory is more likely a result of the pollution from the Detroit Edison coal plants, which were ranked the highest mercury emitting plants in Michigan according to a 2010 EPA report. Rather, the Lansing Board of Water and Light has already been taking steps toward lower mercury emissions and less particle pollution from coal. “Coal has been the workhorse of
electric generation in the United States, and frankly most of the world, for over a hundred years. But we all know about the downsides of coal. Fossil fuels create greenhouse gases among other things,” said Mark Nixon, communications director at the Lansing Board of Water and Light.
Other than investing in new technologies, the Lansing Board of Water and Light are making long-term plans to close Eckert Station, Lansing’s largest and dirtiest coal plant, and replace it with a new facility called Reo Town, that would use energy from steam and natural gas as an alternative energy to coal. “We consider ourselves to be a leader in Michigan as far as transitioning away from coal.” Nixon said.