The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed new pollution standards for power plants that are being seen as a major step in reversing the contamination of Adirondack lakes, fish, and wildlife. The rules are likely to be challenged by congressional Republicans, according to a report by John M. Broder and John Collins Rudolf of The New York Times, but nonetheless appear to mark a turning point in the 40-year-long fight to reduce some of America’s worst air pollutants.
In response to a 2008 U.S. Court of Appeals ordered deadline the EPA has proposed the first-ever national standards for mercury, arsenic and other toxic air pollution from power plants. The new standards would require many power plants to install state-of-the-art pollution control technologies to cut harmful emissions of mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel and gases that cause acid rain and smog. Currently, only about half of the country’s more than 400 coal-burning plants have some form of pollution control technology installed, and only a third of states have any mercury emission standards.
The move is hoped to end the long delay in meeting the criteria set by the 1970 Clean Air Act, which directed the EPA to identify and control major air pollution on a national level. American power producers and other business interests and their political allies have kept the regulations from being imposed, but the Clean Air Act provision allowing for citizen suits has been used to force the EPA to act.
“After 20 years of uncertainty, the federal government will now have the authority to regulate these toxic chemicals that have had such a devastating impact on the Adirondacks, Catskills and other natural areas,” Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK), said about the latest developments. “Because of the technology required to meet this standard, it will not only cut mercury contamination by 91 percent, it will also reduce fine particulate matter, low-level ozone and acidic precipitation.”
The Adirondacks (and Catskills) are downwind coal-burning power plants whose emissions are believed to contribute significantly to mercury pollution locally, but the problem appears to be national in scope. A 2009 U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) study, scientists detected mercury contamination in every fish sampled in 291 streams across the country. About one fourth of the fish sampled were found to “contain mercury at levels exceeding the criterion for the protection of people who consume average amounts of fish, established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,” according to USGS. More than two-thirds of the fish exceeded the U.S. EPA level of concern for fish-eating mammals.
According to the ADK, current levels of mercury deposition in the Northeast are four to six times higher than the levels recorded in 1900. Ninety-six percent of the lakes in the Adirondack region and 40 percent of the lakes in New Hampshire and Vermont exceed the recommended EPA action level for methyl mercury in fish. Mercury is also present in two-thirds of Adirondack loons at levels that negatively impact their reproductive capacity.
New York State currently recommends that no one eat more than one meal per week of fish taken from any lake, river, stream or pond in New York State. There is a complete list and map of the Adirondack fish advisories from the New York State Department of Health located here. It lists 57 Adirondack lakes from which “children less than 15 years old and women who are pregnant or who might one day become pregnant should not eat any fish.”
More information about the new APA mercury standard is available online.