Naked City

Mercury Falling

Once upon a time, mercury gained fame as the poison that made hatters mad. A report released last week documenting Lone Star trends in mercury pollution has had a similar effect on modern-day environmentalists. At a Capitol press conference last Wednesday, the local leadership of the Sierra Club, Clean Water Action, and Public Citizen unveiled new findings that coal-burning power plants in Texas lead the nation in mercury releases. "Mercury emissions are falling through the cracks in Texas' regulatory framework," said Tom Smith, executive director of Public Citizen. "We should see this as a call to action."

Under new rules that went into effect when the electric utility dereg bill passed last session, Smith says, there's an opportunity for the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) to regulate mercury emissions. Doing so, Smith adds, is just the first step in a long-term national campaign to try to find cleaner energy sources and prevent the continued release of mercury in any form. As Ken Kramer of the Sierra Club puts it: "The electric utilities can no longer argue that we have no need for mercury controls."

According to the report, which was produced by the Natural Resources Defense Council and based on federal records, nearly 100 tons of mercury will be released from coal-burning power plants as airborne particles or as solid waste this year. Texas ranks second in emissions directly to the air, with 9,072 pounds, and topped the list of mercury waste generators, with 10,982 pounds, making overall releases the highest in the nation. Moreover, Texas is home to four of the top 10 mercury-producing power plants in the country, including Dallas-based Texas Utilities' Monticello facility in northeast Texas.

But while activists call for stricter controls on mercury, noting that power plants are the last significant unregulated source of the heavy metal, state and industry leaders say many questions must be answered before moves can be taken to reduce emissions. Texas Utilities spokesman Chris Schlein claims that local controls may not improve local conditions, but he adds that if the Monticello plant -- which emits approximately 3,928 pounds of mercury a year -- is shown to be part of the problem, the company will try to remedy the situation. "The thing is, you don't want to implement a solution for something that isn't necessarily a problem," Schlein says "We want to identify the source of the problem first."

Mercury contamination in thousands of lakes and streams across the country has prompted health specialists to warn about fish consumption, especially by children and pregnant women. Eating fish that have high levels of mercury can cause neurological difficulties, including vision problems and loss of motor skills. The fact that this poisonous heavy metal also gets concentrated in animal tissue as it moves up the food chain means trouble for not just people but birds and other predators that rely on fish for food. In Texas, such concerns have prompted warnings in coastal counties, and closures of a handful of East Texas lakes where fish have been shown to have high levels of mercury.

TNRCC spokesman Patrick Crimmins says the mercury levels reported by the NRDC are based on estimates and may not tell citizens much about the environmental impact of coal-burning power plants. "I don't know that there has been a proven link between Texas power plants and mercury in Texas lakes," he says. "Our technical people told me that 95% of mercury in U.S. waters comes from outside the United States. ... So, while we agree that there needs to be more scrutiny and monitoring, it's still early to talk about the need to regulate mercury emissions."

Be that as it may, Public Citizen intends to bring the matter up with the TNRCC at a meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 2, when Smith says he will ask the state to consider imposing some rules on the utilities. "We don't know how bad a problem we have," he says, "because we haven't put enough money toward monitoring our lakes and rivers."

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