Mercury termed a big threat to health in region

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Mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants, including three in southwestern Pennsylvania that are among the top 10 emitters in the nation, pose a serious threat to public health and the environment, according to a new report by PennEnvironment.

The environmental group's report, released today, uses 2009 federal emissions data to rank power plants that emit the most mercury and details the severe and long-lasting health impacts of even low-dosage in utero exposures, as well as direct exposures to children and adults.

The Keystone coal-fired power plant in Armstrong County is the second biggest mercury emitter in the nation, and the Conemaugh power plant in southern Indiana County ranks fourth. Both are owned by Houston, Texas-based GenOn, formerly RRI. The Cambria Cogen Co. power plant in Cambria County ranks eighth nationally for mercury emissions.

The three ranked power plants in Pennsylvania emitted 5,868 pounds of the 134,365 pounds of mercury emitted by all coal-fired power plants in 2009. The report said the amount of mercury emitted by power plants in the United States exceeded the amount emitted by the next 10 biggest sources.

"Powering our homes should not poison Pennsylvania's kids," said Erika Staaf, clean water advocate for Penn-Environment. "Mercury pollution from power plants puts our kids and our environment at risk, and we need the Environmental Protection Agency to force these facilities to clean up."

Only Texas, with four power plants, had more facilities in the top 10 mercury emitters. Pennsylvania also ranked second to Texas in total power plant mercury emissions, with 15,550 pounds annually to Texas' 16,350 pounds. Ohio ranks third (9,518 pounds), West Virginia fourth (6,795 pounds) and Indiana fifth (6,046 pounds).

Much of those mercury emissions come from power plants in the Ohio River Valley and can be carried into southwestern Pennsylvania on prevailing winds, along with sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and fine particles.

Ms. Staaf said the report didn't track mercury pollution from specific sources but that "we're in the pollution zone" created by those Ohio River Valley emissions.

"We might not be the 'tailpipe of the nation' like New England states, but we're right in the middle of all that mercury pollution," Ms. Staaf said. "We're not only catching it from Pennsylvania utilities but also from all those other high-ranking states."

The report's release was timed to support the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's new standards to limit mercury and other toxic air pollutants. PennEnvironment wants the EPA to issue standards that will reduce mercury emissions by more than 90 percent.

"One thing that glares out at me from this report is the utter disregard that certain corporations have for our health. Coal is making us sick," said Randy Francisco, regional representative from the Sierra Club.

The new emissions rules, expected in March, are strongly opposed by the coal and utility industries.

GenOn representatives and the Pennsylvania Coal Association did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.

Mercury also contaminates the environment and accumulates in and harms fish and animals that eat fish, including humans. According to the PennEnvironment report, more U.S. waters are closed to fishing because of mercury contamination than because of any other toxic contamination problem.

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission has issued fish consumption advisories on more than 70 stretches of streams, rivers and lakes due to high levels of mercury in the fish.

National watersheds impacted by mercury contamination, according to the EPA, include more than 6.3 million acres of lakes, reservoirs and ponds, almost 47,000 miles of rivers and streams, 2,000 square miles of bays and estuaries, 225,000 acres of wetlands, and about 32,000 square miles of the Great Lakes.


Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.


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