Md. fish exceed safe levels of mercury, group reports

MaryPIRG examined data from freshwater areas

August 04, 2004|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Many Maryland freshwater fish continue to be contaminated by levels of mercury that exceed the federal government's limits for women and children who eat fish twice a week, according to a report released yesterday by a public interest group.

The group urged the federal government to strengthen proposed regulations on power plants that spew the toxic metal from their smokestacks.

The report released by the Maryland Public Interest Research Group, called "Reel Danger," analyzes reports and data previously gathered by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland Department of the Environment.

It found that 55 percent of 2,547 fish sampled by the federal government in 260 lakes from 1999 to 2001 had enough mercury to exceed safe limits for women of average weight who eat fish twice a week.

Seventy-six percent of the fish had mercury levels that were more than the limit for children under age 3 who eat fish twice a week, according to the report. Mercury is a toxin especially dangerous to the brains of children, causing learning disabilities and developmental delays.

"There is a public health crisis that is slowly unfolding around us, and it's not getting better," Brad Heavner, director of MaryPIRG, said during a news conference that used a fishing pier in Merritt Point Park in Dundalk as a backdrop. "The Bush administration should see the public outcry."

Heavner said that a recent proposal by the EPA to direct coal-fired power plants to reduce their mercury emissions by 70 percent by 2018 was too weak and about a decade too slow, based on the continuing health risks faced by the public.

The proposal by the EPA has spurred a unusually large public response, about 550,000 comments, said Cynthia Bergman, press secretary for the federal agency. The agency will make a decision on the question of how to regulate mercury emissions from power plants by March 15 next year, she said.

Suggests credit

Bergman said that mercury pollution is clearly a health hazard, and that the Bush administration deserves credit for working toward making power plants reduce their emissions.

"The critics are saying we aren't doing it fast enough, but we are looking at what technology exists to reduce the mercury emissions from the power plants," she said. "We want to know when the technology is going to be ready and available, ... and we want to make sure it's done right."

In December 2000, at the end of former President Bill Clinton's term, then-EPA administrator Carol Browner announced that her agency would begin requiring coal-fired power plants to reduce mercury emissions, in an effort to end a lawsuit filed by environmentalists.

Until that time, a loophole in the law exempted these power plants, found to be the largest source of mercury, from regulations that apply to industry, incinerators and other sources of the air pollution.

Officials said then that the EPA would propose regulations for mercury by 2003 and issue final rules by 2004. In December, under the Bush administration, the EPA proposed to cut emissions by 70 percent by 2018.

But Democrats and some environmental groups, who say the technology for reducing emissions is available, said the EPA should require a 90 percent reduction by 2008.

State sampling

The report said data on more than 100 fish collected by the MDE during recent testing showed that 50 percent of smallmouth bass and 50 percent of walleye exceeded the safe limits of mercury for women who eat the fish twice a week.

During the news conference, James White, 69, a retired printing company worker from Dundalk, sat on the fishing pier next to a sign warning of contaminants in fish and cast his line into Bull Neck Creek. White pulled out a small rockfish, which flopped out of his hands, bounced off the pier and plopped into the water.

"I just catch and release them," he said. "I don't eat them. I figure if the pollution gets on my hands, it won't kill me."

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