One-Third of Water Pollutio­n Starts as Air Pollution

Tue, Oct 23, 2018

Mercury accounts for one-third of the “impaired waters” listing for Minnesota—1,670 of the 4,603 lakes and rivers. As the word “impaired” implies, it is defined as body of water that is not meeting state water quality standards. Elevated exposure to mercury can harm the nervous system (brain, spinal cord and nerves) and the kidneys. It can cause illness or, in extreme cases, death, and it is a special concern for fetuses, infants and children, according to the Minnesota Health Department. Exposure to mercury during the time the nervous system is developing can affect a child’s ability to learn and process information.

Although mercury is a naturally occurring element, the mercury that is responsible for polluting Minnesota lakes and the fish that live in them originates as air pollution from coal-burning power plants. After mercury falls to Earth with rain, snow, or dust particles, bacteria convert it into a form called methylmercury. Without this conversion, the low concentrations of mercury in the environment would not be a problem. But methylmercury masquerades as an amino acid, so that animals retain it in their protein, and concentrations get higher and higher up the food chain. Plankton and small fish consume the methylmercury, and larger fish eat them. Fish highest on the food chain, such as bass, walleye and northern pike, end up with mercury concentrations about a million times higher than the water in which they live. Humans and fish-eating wildlife, such as loons and otters, are then exposed to elevated concentrations of mercury from consuming the fish.

Mercury pollution is an important environmental and public health issue that is impossible to solve without national and international cooperation because air emissions don’t stay where they originate. The contaminates get blown around the globe. We’ve seen regulation of coal-burning power plants have dramatic positive impacts in the past. For example, back in the 1980s, acid rain, also caused by burning fossil fuels, was a hot topic. Canada's environmental minister called it an "insidious malaria of the biosphere" and it even made an appearance on mainstream TV when actress Dana Plato’s hair turned green because of acid rain in a 1982 episode of Diff'rent Strokes. We can thank the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments which enacted tougher emission standards and made significant improvements in air quality. Acid rain is no longer an acute problem, but mercury pollution is another story.

So what is happening nationally to help bring this local mercury problem in our waters under control? On August 21, 2018 the Trump administration released its proposed Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule to replace the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan that was never enacted. The ACE proposal calls for each state to establish its own standards for its power plants with no specific numeric target. The proposal excludes pollutants that affect people’s health and welfare and power plants would not need to adhere to a stringent standard or timeline. If there are significant or “unreasonable” costs in improving the power plant’s performance, the state can opt out of making changes.

Proponents of the rule like the cost-savings for the energy companies and the flexibility to regulate how they see fit. Opponents of the ACE rule argue that ACE was not designed to reduce emissions and that this proposal completely misses the mark in what needs to happen in the next decade to curb air pollutants. Health care advocates cite public health concerns especially for asthmatics and heart patients. According to a Harvard University study, known as Six Cities, there will be 1,400 premature deaths annually by 2030 from an increase in the extremely fine particulate matter that is linked to heart and lung disease, up to 15,000 new cases of upper respiratory problems, a rise in bronchitis, and tens of thousands of missed school days.

The Bassett Creek Watershed Management Commission is a local unit of government focused on protecting and improving water resources in our communities. Whereas air emissions topics are typically beyond the Commission’s purview, we realize that our energy use is inextricably connected to the overall health of our water. What do you think about the proposed ACE rule? Will individual states voluntarily regulate to a level that you are comfortable with? Public comment is open until October 31, 2018 at this link https://www.regulations.gov/docket?D=EPA-HQ-OAR-2017-0355

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