Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Adirondacks Waited Decades for Mercury Limits

It was immensely satisfying to watch EPA administrator Lisa P. Jackson announce today that power-plant mercury emissions will be reduced 90 percent.

We in the Adirondacks have waited more than two decades for this. You would think limiting a toxin such as mercury, which harms the nervous systems of children exposed in the womb, would not be subject to protracted debate. But coal- and oil-fired power plants resisted the regulation shamelessly for decades.

Several companies still argue that they need more time to adapt to this “new” rule, while other plants already have adapted or are willing to comply with a proven, widely used and effective technology. Ohio-based American Electric Power, formerly run by Fourth Lake summer resident E. Linn Draper, is among the resisters, claiming EPA has not given it enough time to comply. What has the company been doing since 1990? That’s when Congress passed Clean Air Act Amendments mandating that EPA require control of toxic air pollutants, including mercury. Today’s announcement was court-mandated; it was not a surprise.

Because of geography and geology, the Adirondacks has suffered more from mercury than perhaps any other region in the United States; we are downwind of many power plants, and our granite bedrock doesn’t buffer our waters from acid rain, which in turn convert elemental mercury into a more-easily absorbed organic form. Fish eat the poisoned plankton. Loons, osprey and we, then, eat the fish.

Some friends and I camped on Franklin Falls Pond on the Fourth of July. We talked with a few fishermen who were hoping to have walleye for dinner. A state fishing handbook confusingly advises that anglers can keep three walleye of at least 18 inches from Franklin Falls, but another part of the same booklet says “don’t eat” any of them.

Deciding whether to eat an Adirondack fish is more complicated than choosing a cell-phone plan. You have to calculate a series of factors: What does it eat? (Fish like walleye that eat other fish have a much higher concentration of mercury than trout and others that eat invertebrates.) What color is the water? (Brownish water has more organics or may be heavily influenced by wetlands, which can act as methylmercury factories.) Is the water dammed? (Mercury levels tend to be higher behind dams.) And so on.

New York State simplifies things by advising women of childbearing age and children under 15 to just avoid most Adirondack fish.

With the new EPA rule in place, I hope the next generation will be able to catch and eat a fish off an Adirondack dock without worry. Mercury lasts a long time in the environment, so Mr. Draper and I won’t escape without heavy metals in our bloodstream, but maybe his great-grandchildren will.

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Mary Thill lives in Saranac Lake and has worked alternately in journalism and Adirondack conservation for three decades.

3 Responses

  1. saratogawally says:

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