Pennsylvania Analysis Finds Mercury Levels 47 Percent Higher In Areas Near Power Plants

Sample results from Pennsylvania's two longest-running mercury deposition collection sites reinforce other state and national studies that show the neurotoxin tends to concentrate around local emission sources, creating "hot spots" of contamination, state officials announced on May 13.

EPA is facing growing criticism over its Clean Air Mercury Rule, including the agency's inspector general questioning EPA's claim that its mercury control plan will not cause toxic "hot spots" of contamination (The May 15 report can be found at http://www.epa.gov/oig/reports/air.htm). Additionally, several states are choosing to adopt their own standards, which will be more stringent than those announced by the federal government.

Data collected over eight years by Penn State University for the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) show mercury levels 47 percent higher in areas closer to power plants.

"Several independent studies have shown how local efforts to control mercury protect public health, improve air quality and clean the environment," DEP Secretary Kathleen A. McGinty said.

The data were collected at two sites -- Cresson in Cambria County and Wellsboro in Tioga County -- between 1997 and 2004. The sites were selected because of their significantly different profile relative to locations to nearby coal-fired electric generating stations.

The Cresson site, which is fairly close to and downwind of a number of large coal-fired electric utilities in southwestern Pennsylvania, reported an average concentration of mercury in the collected wet deposition that was 47 percent higher than results collected at the northern tier monitoring site. Wellsboro is at a much greater distance from any coal-fired utilities.

Last month, Massachusetts reported a 32-percent average decrease in the level of mercury found in a signature freshwater fish, yellow perch, caught in nine lakes in the northeast corner of the state, where a cluster of incinerators is located (see http://www.mass.gov/dep/public/publications/mercury.htm). The reductions came seven years after the state enacted the nation's toughest mercury emission laws for incinerators. Comparatively, yellow perch from lakes elsewhere in the state recorded a 15 percent drop on average.

Gov. Edward G. Rendell has proposed a state-specific mercury reduction plan for Pennsylvania. For additional information, visit DEP's Web site at http://www.depweb.state.pa.us and click on "Mercury Reduction Plan."

On May 25, New York Gov. George E. Pataki announced a new state proposal to reduce harmful mercury emissions from coal-fired utility power plants by approximately 50 percent from current levels by 2010 and 90 percent by 2015.

"Mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants can have severe environmental and public health impacts, and we must take aggressive steps to control these harmful emissions and reduce the presence of this pollutant in our air and water," Pataki said. "By adopting these new standards, all coal-fired power plants in the State would be required to use pollution control technologies to significantly reduce their mercury emissions."

The state Department of Environmental Conservation's (DEC) will be proposing a draft regulation that would achieve mercury decreases in two phases. The first phase would require an approximately 50 percent decrease in power plant mercury emissions from current levels by Jan. 1, 2010. Under this regulation, the state would establish a mercury cap of 786 pounds. Trading within New York or between New York power plant facilities and facilities in other states would be prohibited.

The second phase of the New York's proposed mercury standards, which will be effective by Jan. 1, 2015, would implement a unit-based limit for each power plant facility. In conjunction with the first phase reductions, this would result in an estimated 90 percent decrease in mercury emissions, from current levels, with the overall levels being reduced to approximately 150 pounds per year or less. This phase would require a level of emissions reductions consistent with those that would be achieved with Maximum Available Control Technologies (MACT).

The New York governor's office can be contacted at http://www.state.ny.us/governor.

Additional information on EPA's Clean Air Mercury Rule can be found at http://www.epa.gov/oar/mercuryrule.

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2006 issue of Environmental Protection.

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