Scientists question administration’s mercury policy

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(Host) The Bush administration on Monday backed away from mandatory controls on toxic mercury pollution in favor of a market based approach. Forty-eight tons of mercury are released each year by coal and oil-fired power plants. And new research shows that the heavy metal has contaminated many lakes in Vermont and New Hampshire. The scientists who conducted the research say they’re leery of the administration’s new mercury plan.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Scientists have known for years that mercury moves up the food chain and can accumulate to dangerous levels in some fish. The new research shows just how widespread the mercury problem is in Vermont and New Hampshire.

Neil Kamman works for the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation and is the lead author on a new study that will be published next year in the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry.

(Kamman) “So what we found when we looked at these statistically randomized lakes is that 25 percent of the lakes in Vermont have fish tissue in relatively small fishes that violate that EPA fish tissue standard. So this means if, that on average, if you got out fishing, one in four lakes are going to have relatively small fish that have too much mercury.”

(Dillon) Mercury is a potent nerve poison that’s especially dangerous to babies and young children. Vermont and many other states already warn children and women of child bearing age to limit fish consumption.

Kamman says the new study shows that mercury levels were often higher in remote, forested lakes because these water bodies have the biological characteristics that allow the mercury to accumulate more easily in the food chain.

(Kamman) “The ones you wouldn’t think would be polluted are actually the ones that show the greatest amount of accumulation in fish.”

(Dillon) Airborne mercury comes from coal-fired power plants. Studies have shown that when the pollutant is controlled at its source, the levels in the environment quickly fall.

But instead of setting mandatory controls on mercury, the Bush administration wants to set up a market-based system that allows companies to trade pollution credits. This trading approach has proved successful in reducing pollution that causes acid rain.

But the authors of this latest study are leery of using the free market strategy to control mercury, which is quite toxic in the environment. According to Kamman, the trading system would not do enough to reduce mercury “hot spots” – including an area of southeast New Hampshire that’s located near the coal plants.

(Kamman) “By trading, those plants may continue to emit mercury while other plants that are more easily retrofitted could have the controls put on them. So I don’t think trading is a good idea. It doesn’t help New England.”

(Dillon) The new research on mercury pollution and lakes showed that the problem is more severe in New Hampshire than in Vermont. While 25 percent of Vermont lakes have mercury levels above federal limits, 54 percent of New Hampshire lakes violate the safety standards.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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