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Washington --- Mercury in the rainwater of several Southeastern and Gulf Coast states exceeds the safe level for lake water, as established by the Environmental Protection Agency, by as much as 96 times, an environmental group reported Thursday.
The National Wildlife Federation said EPA sampling stations in Georgia and seven other Southern states showed mercury levels that would make fish toxic to humans who ate them. Mercury found in contaminated fish destroys nerve cells and easily crosses the placenta into unborn babies, researchers say. The National Academy of Sciences has warned that consumption of contaminated fish by pregnant women can lead to children with learning disabilities.
The National Wildlife Federation, the largest environmental organization in the United States, called on the EPA to crack down on the sources of mercury in the atmosphere, especially coal-burning electric power plants.
The EPA does not set safety limits for mercury in rainwater, but it does for lakes and streams. Rain samples collected in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in South Georgia had concentrations as high as 275 parts per trillion --- 78 times higher than the safe level for lake water, the report said. More than 93 percent of the Okefenokee samples collected between 1998 and 2002 exceeded the safe lake level, the federation reported.
One sampling site in Louisiana showed levels 96 times the safe level.
An author of the National Wildlife Federation report acknowledged in an interview that not all of the mercury that contaminates rainwater finds its way into rivers or lakes. Much is left behind in soil as rainwater runoff makes its way into the nearest stream, said Felice Stadler, a mercury specialist with the organization.
Even so, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division has identified 2,247 miles of river and 26,051 acres of lakes that are so contaminated with mercury that people should restrict the quantity of fish they consume from those waters. Lake Lanier, Lake Allatoona and parts of the Chattahoochee River are on the warning list.
''Sixty percent of all the mercury that deposits into lakes and streams comes from domestic sources, and coal-fired power plants are the largest source,'' Stadler said.
The federation argued that the EPA should adopt rules that could cut power plant emissions by as much as 90 percent. It also urged the EPA to set tighter rules for other industries and to ban mercury in some industrial and consumer products.
A spokesman for a group of power companies said the federation's recommendations would be "counterproductive." Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, said the report calls for ''old-fashioned litigious regulatory approaches.''
He said that President Bush's proposed Clean Air Act amendment, called the Clear Skies Initiative, would result in greater efficiency and therefore less pollution. The amendment would allow companies to buy and sell the rights to pollute, as long as national limits were not exceeded. It calls for an eventual 70 percent reduction in mercury pollution.
In its report, the Wildlife Federation said the EPA could accomplish quicker and more stringent reductions under current law than under the Bush proposal. Through 2017, five times as much mercury would be emitted under the Bush plan, it said.
Dan Reidinger, a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, trade association of the nation's electric industry, said power companies ''have committed to reducing mercury pollution substantially.'' However, he said, the 90 percent reduction that the Wildlife Federation endorses "would raise electricity costs without providing any measurable health benefit."
Copyright 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution