Posts Tagged ‘mercury’

New national mercury research confirms NJ’s experience – another nail in coal’s coffin?

August 30th, 2009 No comments
Pennsylvania coal power plant on the Delaware River

Pennsylvania coal power plant on the Delaware River

Think coal: Global warming. Mountaintop removal. Sludge impoundment blowouts. Poisoned waterways. Acid rain. Smog. Unsafe mines. Exploited workers. Devastated communities.

The most recent nail in coal’s coffin?

An important new study by the US Geological Survey was released this week. The study documents extensive mercury pollution due to coal power and provides a huge test of the Obama administration’s commitments to develop strict new mercury emissions controls at the nation’s dirty coal power plants. The key policy issues? The inside political history?

Will EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson propose the equivalent of NJ’s strict State emission standards on the nation’s coal power plants?

What was Christie Whitman’s role in the NJ mercury issue? How did it shape her response as EPA Administrator to accommodate energy and coal interests during the Bush years (recall the Orwellian “Clear Skies” that was slammed by NJ officials)?

Here’s the news coverage:


No fish can escape mercury pollution.  That’s the take-home message from a federal study of mercury contamination released Wednesday that tested fish from nearly 300 streams across the country.

The toxic substance was found in every fish sampled, a finding that underscores how widespread mercury pollution has become.

The study by the U.S. Geological Survey is the most comprehensive look to date at mercury in the nation’s streams. From 1998 to 2005, scientists collected and tested more than a thousand fish, including bass, trout and catfish, from 291 streams nationwide.

“This science sends a clear message that our country must continue to confront pollution, restore our nation’s waterways, and protect the public from potential health dangers,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement.

Mercury consumed by eating fish can damage the nervous system and cause learning disabilities in developing fetuses and young children. The main source of mercury to most of the streams tested, according to the researchers, is emissions from coal-fired power plants. The mercury released from smokestacks here and abroad rains down into waterways, where natural processes convert it into methylmercury — a form that allows the toxin to wind its way up the food chain into fish. (read full story here)

This USGS study also confirms scientific research and regulatory standards adopted in NJ over 15 years ago.

Few are aware of this history. It can provide important insights into the current national policy debate.

Fifteen years ago, former Bush EPA Adminsitrator Chritie Whitman had extensive direct involvement with mercury as NJ Governor. Whitman’s NJ role foreshadowed her actions as head of the Bush EPA, which delayed and then proposed a weak mercury emission rule that was overturned by the courts.

Current EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson served as NJ DEP Commissioner. Jackson was Assistant Commissioner for Land Use when her boss, Brad Campbell led NJ DEP to adopted a strict emission standard for coal plants in 2004.

Jackson’s EPA is now considering that same issue and developing a national proposal to regulate mercury emissions at the nation’s dirty coal plants.

So, with the former and current head of EPA both coming from NJ, I’m sure we will hear the standard line about NJ’s environmental leadership.

But instead of the press corps merely parroting this talking point on NJ’s leadership, the press and the public should be doing some digging and asking tough questions.

So, let’s take a closer look at the NJ history in light of the current debate.

The mercury issue first arose in NJ in the late 1980’s in the fight against garbage incinerators. In 1990, Governor Florio Administration issued an Executive Order that imposed a moratorium on garbage incinerators and created a Mercury Task Force.

In 1993, the Florio Task Force issued a 3 Volume Report that provided the public health and scientific bases for DEP to adopt what was then the strongest mercury air emissions standards for garbage incinerators in the world. While the initial focus was of the Task Force was on garbage incineration, the Report also announced plans to expand emission standards to coal fired power plants, another major mercury source. At the same time, DEP engaged the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences to study levels or mercury in freshwater fish across the state.

The Florio policy and plans to regulate coal plants were derailed in 1994 by the Whitman Administration and new DEP Commissioner Bob Shinn. Their actions set back NJ for over a decade. It took 10 more years before NJ got back on track and finally adopted standards on coal plants in 2004. Because of that Whitman/Shinn delay, we will be paying for that with our children’s neurological impairment as a result of mercury poisoning.

Shinn was a strong supporter of garbage incineration and personally reversed the Florio policy. Shinn was also close to the state’s recreational fishermen, who were hotly opposed to the fish studies. Whitman was “Open for Business” and politically sympathetic to PSEG and state power utilities that operated coal plans. A major new coal plant was proposed along the Delaware River (Crown Vista). Mercury was a fly in the Whitman/Shinn ointment.

In early 1994, at the start of Whitman/Shinn regime, a DEP study conducted by the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences was leaked to the media and reported widely.

The leaked study was page one news. The study documented statewide unsafe levels of toxic mercury in NJ freshwater fish.

Widespread press coverage cast DEP and the Whitman administration in a negative light. In response, Governor Whitman sought to downplay the risks of this study.

Environmentalists accused the state of ignoring its mercury problem, and the press blasted the Governor.

Whitman responded and compared the mercury in fish risks to the recent public reaction (“scare”) to media reports of the health risks of the pesticide alar on apples. The apple industry suffered huge economic losses as demand fell in response to the alar story. Whitman felt the public’s reaction was unwarranted, and unfair to the apple industry. Whitman sought to avoid a similar situation in NJ.

To do this, the Governor and DEP Commissioner came up with a plan to mislead the public by saying that the Philadelphia Academy study was preliminary and inconclusive. The Whitman scheme relied on a bogus and knowingly false claim that the form of mercury found in the fish was unknown and therefore required further research before taking any action. Whitman and Shinn did not make honest mistakes or minor misstatements.

Whitman’s public statements, extensively quoted in the press, were part of a strategy to falsely inject scientific uncertainty and minimize health risks in order to avoid taking regulatory against specific pollution sources of mercury (garbage incinerators and coal fired power plants).

Whitman was denounced by environmentalists in the press for this. When this scientific research was leaked and a coverup strategy memo were disclosed to the public by the press, Whitman not only repeated the lies but also retaliated against a career DEP employee who called her on those lies.

In addition to Whitman being scolded for her errors by academic scientists in the press, scientists in DEP called the Governor out on her lies – Here is the DEP memo:


March 28, 1994.


TO: Commissioner Robert Shinn.
THROUGH: Robert Tucker, Ph.D., Director.
FROM: Leslie McGeorge, Assistant Director.
SUBJECT: Information on Mercury in Fish.

Over the past several weeks, it has been observed that information attributed by the press to the Governor’s Office on the issue of mercury in fish has contained some technical inaccuracies. We offer the information in this memorandum for your consideration in providing the Governor’s Office with further clarification of this issue.

As was stated by the Governor’s Office, there are three forms of mercury:
* Elemental Mercury (metallic mercury). This is the type of mercury used in thermometers.
* Inorganic Mercury (mercury salts). An example is mercuric chloride.
* Organic Mercury. Methylmercury is the most important organic mercury compound in terms of environmental exposure.

Contrary to the statements reported in the press, all three forms of mercury are toxic to humans. Elemental mercury is volatile, and it is toxic when breathed from the air; exposure to elemental mercury can cause effects on the central nervous system.

The toxicity of the other two types of mercury (inorganic and organic) can occur through ingestion, which is the exposure route relevant to mercury in fish. Inorganic mercury is toxic to the kidney. Methylmercury, the organic mercury of primary concern, is toxic to the central nervous system. The most sensitive toxic effect of Methylmercury in non-pregnant adults is paresthesia (abnormal sensations in the skin). Methylmercury is also toxic to the developing fetus, and causes defects in the development of the nervous system. This developmental toxicity is the most sensitive effect of exposure to methylmercury.

Of the different forms of mercury, all scientific data indicate that essentially all of the mercury in fish is methylmercury. The most recent and reliable investigation into the occurrence of methylmercury in fish conducted under ultraclean laboratory conditions (Bloom, 1992) showed that almost all of the mercury in the edible portion of fish and shellfish (muscle tissue) is in the form of methylmercury. This study included multiple samples (at least 3) of 15 species. For all species, the average percentage of methylmercury was at least 91 percent of total mercury, and for all freshwater fish species, methylmercury was 96 percent or more of total mercury. These results are generalizable to all marine and freshwater fish.

Information attributed to the Governor by the press indicated that there may be a marked difference in the ease of metabolism of different forms of mercury, and that the toxicity of mercury is-dependent on whether it is released naturally or by man-made processes. Actually, the time required for the body to rid itself of a dose of mercury is generally similar for all three forms of mercury. Additionally, the toxicity of a given form of mercury is not dependent on whether it originated from natural or man-made processes. Any type of mercury released may undergo changes from one form to the other in the environment. The mercury in fish may have come from either source, but the origin of the mercury in the tissue is not relevant to the potential for toxicity to humans.

In summary, there are three forms of mercury. For all intents and purposes the only form of mercury found in fish is methylmercury. Exposure to methylmercury through fish ingestion can pose a significant potential for adverse human health effects.

Mercury in fish may originate from human or natural processes, but this distinction is not relevant from a human health perspective.
The Division of Science and Research has additional information on all of the points mentioned above. We would be happy to discuss these issues further with you at your convenience if you so desire. (1)” [end]