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Mercury Pollution Underscores Need For Clean Air Laws

Published: May 31, 2003

T he Chassahowitzka River is one of the most beautiful wildernesses in Florida, an expanse of coastline dominated by saw grass, not condominiums.

Yet a study of mercury pollution found water in the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge had peak mercury levels 23.2 times higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standard.

No industry dumps wastewater into the river. Nor is there urban stormwater runoff. But the river is 15 miles south of the Crystal River power plants, which are among the top emitters of mercury in the state.

Indeed, much of the mercury in Florida's waters comes from coal-burning power plants, whose emissions ultimately end up in lakes, rivers and bays. Florida was among 12 states criticized by the National Wildlife Federation, which reviewed mercury pollution statistics throughout the nation.

As the Tribune's Jim Tunstall reports, mercury content at Florida's four rain monitoring sites average 4.5 times higher than the EPA standards. Some sites, such as Chassahowitzka, were far higher.

Health officials recommend very limited consumption of fish from the Chassahowitzka. But the problem is scarcely confined to the refuge. The Florida Department of Health recommends limited consumption of freshwater fish such as largemouth bass, bluegill and gar and a number of saltwater species, including trout and king mackerel. Mercury, which accumulates in tissues and can cause birth defects and brain damage, poses a particular danger to children and pregnant women.

The National Wildlife Federation faults the states with high mercury levels for not adopting tougher restrictions. Florida regulators say the state passed the first mercury emissions rule and mercury levels have gone down in some places, such as the Everglades.

Still, the cold and disturbing mercury numbers make clear that current state rules are insufficient.

But air pollution, which transcends state boundaries, ultimately should be a federal responsibility. And Washington, rather than seeking to reduce emissions, is weakening the Clean Air Act.

Among other things, President George W. Bush's administration intends to get rid of the ``new source review'' requirement of the Clean Air Act, a reasonable measure that requires power plants to install modern pollution control devices when undergoing major renovations.

This change will enable a relative few old facilities, which account for most power plan pollution, to operate for decades without major cleanup. Environmentalists say the president's plan would increase allowable power plants emissions five times by 2017 and three times each year after that.

Perhaps those claims are exaggerated, but neither the administration nor its supporters in Congress appear interested in a scientific review that would clarify the matter.

Congress recently rejected a thoughtful measure that would have delayed the adoption of the controversial changes for six months so the National Academy of Sciences could study the likely health impacts. Florida Sens. Bob Graham and Bill Nelson, to their credit, supported the measure.

Florida's ominous mercury levels reflect just one of air pollution's many invisible health threats.

At the very least, Florida leaders should be embarrassed they must warn people about eating fish in a state renowned for sportfishing. They should pursue tougher laws. But it is lamentable that Washington is unlikely to provide any help in the fight for healthier air.

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