Vt. pursues unique legal strategy to reduce mercury levels

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(Host) Vermont has joined other New England states and New York in asking the federal government to cut mercury pollution coming from Midwest coal plants.

The states are pursuing a unique legal strategy. They hope to use a provision of the Clean Water Act to reduce mercury levels in the region’s fish.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) Mercury is carried by the wind from Midwest smokestacks to the Northeast. It’s an air pollutant – but it does most of its damage in the water.

The toxic metal moves up the food chain, and is especially dangerous for young children and pregnant women. Vermont and many other states warn people about eating fish that’s contaminated with mercury.

(Kamman) Because fish consumption is affected, and because the support of aquatic life in certain systems is impacted by mercury, then it’s relevant from a Clean Water Act standpoint.

(Dillon) Neil Kamman is a scientist with the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation. He’s done extensive research on mercury in Vermont, and he was part of a technical team that contributed to a unique legal action filed by the New England states and New York.

The states want the US Environmental Protection Agency to require a 90 percent reduction in mercury that comes here from outside the region.

Kamman says the Northeast states have done a good job controlling local mercury sources. But the pollution is still coming from the Midwest.

(Kamman) Coal fired power plants are the largest remaining mercury source. But there are others. There are municipal and medical waste combustion sources outside of New England and New York that are not controlled to the extent they could be…

(Dillon) The states cited a provision of the Clean Water Act that allows the EPA to set a total maximum daily load of a pollutant that damages water.

Beth Card is director of water quality programs and the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission, which helped coordinate the work.

(Card) This is a huge step that we were able to have seven states come together and work together for close to two years on this project and be in agreement that a) this is a problem, and b) hat we have a common thought process on how it might be resolved.

(Dillon) Chris Kilian is Vermont director of the Conservation Law Foundation, a legal advocacy group that worked with the states. He says the next move is up to the EPA.

(Kilian) The states are taking action under the CWA to address this huge source of the mercury that’s contaminating our fish, and they’re submitting it to the U.S. EPA who will have to decide whether they’re going to continue to fight the states on this or live up to their obligation under the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act and actually clean up these pollution sources.

(Dillon) Under the law, the EPA has 30 days to respond to the states’ request.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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