Groups asking state to crack down on mercury

Two plants targeted by three environmental organizations

October 30, 2008|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

Three environmental groups are calling on the state to crack down on mercury pollution from a Carroll County cement plant and a Western Maryland paper mill, arguing that they are contaminating fish in local rivers, streams and lakes.

The two facilities are among the top five mercury polluters in Maryland, according to federal data. But unlike the other three, which are coal-burning power plants, there isn't a specific state or federal law requiring them to reduce emissions.

The groups - the Environmental Integrity Project, Clean Water Action and the Waterkeeper Alliance - contend that the state nonetheless has the authority to force reductions. They wrote the Maryland Department of the Environment and Attorney General Douglas E. Gansler asking for action.

"Mercury is a deadly toxin, especially dangerous to nursing mothers and young children, and fallout from air pollution contaminates our rivers and streams," said Eric Schaeffer of the Environmental Integrity Project. "We hope the state will require these plants to do what needs to be done to keep mercury out of the air and out of our waterways."

The Lehigh plant in Union Bridge reported releasing 376 pounds of mercury into the air last year, a 10-fold increase from what it reported the previous year to the federal government's Toxics Release Inventory.

NewPage Corp.'s paper mill in Luke, on the Potomac River in Allegany County, reported releasing 373 pounds of mercury in 2007, a nearly 50 percent increase from the previous year.

"If you put the two together, we are looking at 40 percent of the mercury emissions in Maryland," Schaeffer said. He said that 1/70 th of a teaspoon of mercury is enough to contaminate a 25-acre lake.

A top state environmental official vowed to investigate the elevated mercury emissions reported by the two plants. Both facilities had previously reported lower releases to the state. "That's an awful lot of mercury for any one source," said Angelo Bianca, deputy director of air and radiation management.

Mercury occurs naturally in the environment, but it is a potent neurotoxin that can damage the human nervous system and cause tremors, memory loss and kidney disease, among other things. Young children with developing brains and nervous systems are particularly vulnerable, even to low doses. Methyl mercury has been detected in freshwater fish across the state, and the environmental agency for years has warned pregnant women and young children to limit how much fish they eat from Maryland waters.

The leading source of mercury pollution in Maryland is Constellation Energy's Brandon Shores power plant in Pasadena. It reported releasing 550 pounds of mercury last year, up slightly from 2006. The other leading sources are Mirant Corp.'s Morgantown power plant on the Potomac in Charles County and its Chalk Point plant on the Patuxent River in Prince George's County.

Maryland's coal-burning power plants are required to curtail their mercury pollution under a 2006 state law. The Healthy Air Act calls for an 80 percent reduction by 2010 and a 90 percent reduction by 2013.

Constellation and Mirant say they are installing "scrubbers" and other pollution-control equipment that are expected to reduce emissions enough to meet the 2010 deadline. Constellation is spending nearly $1 billion, said spokesman Kevin Thornton, while Mirant's Misty Allen said the company is spending a total of $1.6 billion at three power plants in Maryland.

Tim Matz, director of environmental affairs for Lehigh Hanson Inc., based in Dallas, suggested that the mercury in the Union Bridge plant's emissions comes from the limestone it converts to cement, and from the coal it burns in the process. He said he could not explain the large increase in reported releases.

The company is waiting for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to propose nationwide limits on mercury releases from cement kilns, Matz said, and it expects to cooperate with the federal rule. After being sued repeatedly over failure to regulate the cement industry's mercury releases, the EPA has pledged to act by March.

NewPage, meanwhile, voluntarily installed $30 million worth of pollution control equipment late last year that should reduce the Luke plant's mercury releases, according to spokeswoman Patsy Koontz.

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