PI Original Adam Doster Monday December 28th, 2009, 12:22pm

Coal, Mercury, And Illinois Waters

Exposure to mercury can cause serious damage
to the nervous system, especially among children. And it only takes
small traces of the chemical to pollute freshwater lakes and streams,
where we get our drinking water. That's what makes a new Tribune story
by reporter ...

Exposure to mercury can cause serious damage to the nervous system, especially among children. And it only takes small traces of the chemical to pollute freshwater lakes and streams, where we get our drinking water. That's what makes a new Tribune story by reporter Michael Hawthorne so troubling. According to an analysis of recently released federal industrial pollution data, the amount of mercury released into the air by Illinois' coal-fire power plants increased by 7 percent in 2008. By contrast, mercury emissions dropped 4 percent at the national level. More from his piece:

Only one other state, Michigan, recorded a larger increase in pounds released. Texas tied Illinois for the second largest, but emissions declined in 27 other states, including Indiana, Ohio, Georgia and several others that rely heavily on coal to generate electricity.

What caused the jump? It turns out many regional coal plants are increasingly using coal mined out West (rather than here in Illinois), which contains higher mercury content. Problem is: they aren't retrofitting their facilities to filter out the chemical from their exhaust. This includes a plant in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood as well as two in Will County.

Lawmakers at every level are trying to get a handle on the problem. Early this year, the Obama administration asked the Supreme Court to drop a Bush-era appeal of a federal ruling that the Environmental Protection Agency had illegally evaded safeguards established in the Clean Air Act requiring substantial reductions in toxic air pollution (including mercury) from the nation’s coal plant fleet. Three years ago, Illinois also adopted mercury limits on power plants, mandating that each individual facility must achieve a 90 percent reduction in mercury emissions by 2013. And just this month, Chicago Ald. Joe Moore (49th Ward) announced plans to introduce an ordinance that would regulate the emissions generated by Midwest Generation, which operates plants in both Pilsen and Little Village. (On behalf of Attorney General Lisa Madigan and the EPA, the Justice Department has already filed suit in federal court against Midwest Generation.)

It's good to know that environmentally-friendly lawmakers are attempting to protect the atmosphere -- and our water -- from this dangerous source of pollution. Hawthorne's story is a good reminder that such regulations are urgent.

Image used under a Creative Commons license by Flickr user Wigwam Jones.

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