The Great Lakes, Mercury, and Senator Inhofe

With Senator James Inhofe's (R-OK) move to roll back the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to regulate mercury -- both now and in the future -- the threat to the health of Americans is in the balance. While Inhofe has chosen to fight the December 21, 2012 Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) through S.J.Res.37, lawsuits have been mounted by several utility companies in the courts.

The EPA, along with groups like Moms Clean Air Forces, have been consistently working to bring awareness to the fact that mercury is a neurotoxin that harms children, developing fetuses, and pregnant women. The health benefit stats of MATS have been widely publicized. They would eliminate thousands of premature deaths and yield a lowered rate of bronchitis and asthma.

On June 6, I was on a press call that outlined the findings of a new NRDC report that drilled down on the "25 Worst Mercury Polluters of the Great Lakes." For those who don't remember their grade school geography, these bodies of waters touch eight states spanning from Minnesota to New York. There are 144 coal-fired power plants that ring the Great Lakes. They emit more than 13,000 pounds of mercury into the air annually. The report explains, "The Great Lakes basin is considered a 'net sink' for mercury, meaning more mercury is emitted and deposited in the basin than the amount that finds a way out of the basin." Mercury pollution from power plants in the region is the source of close to 25 percent of the nation's total mercury emission.

The Biodiversity Research Institute and the Great Lakes Commission ascertained that "Mercury hot spots from coal-fired power plants have been found in Michigan, Ohio, and New York along Lake Erie, and areas around the southern half of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin and Illinois."

The EPA has stated that coal-fired power plants are the largest man-made source of mercury pollution, accounting for 50 percent of mercury air emissions in the country. Twenty percent of this airborne pollution turns into methylmercury. At stake is not just human health, but the wellbeing of wildlife and ecosystems.

It would seem obvious that moving forward with air pollution controls is the prudent path. There is available technology that is able to achieve an overall reduction in mercury by removing at least 90 percent or more of the mercury in coal. The report outlines how a "significant fraction of mercury and other air toxics emitted by the worst plants can be removed by air pollution controls already or soon to be installed at many power plants."

There are a number of companies that have supported moving forward with upgrades. A roll back would be unfair to those who have implemented pollution controls and a reward to those who have been uncooperative. If Sen. Inhofe has his way, things will look particularly bleak for Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, states that suffer from the heaviest amounts of pollutions while simultaneously being in need of state-level pollution control rules.

For those who are consistently expressing concern about the jobs, it should be noted that mercury pollution has hurt the local economies that depend on income from recreational fishing revenues. Sports fishing in the Great Lakes Region amounts to over 20 billion dollars and generates 190,000 jobs. For those who are involved with the fishing industry or who look to the lakes to supply them with food, they are gravely impacted as well.

It is eerily informative to learn about the health problems that scientists have observed in various species of birds and and animals that have been exposed to methylmercury. They include neurological impacts as well as reduced survival rates and decreases in population viability.

Dr. Peter Orris, who took part in the call, emphasized, "It's important that mercury is well understood." He spoke about the need for "primary prevention" as he traced the cycle of plants releasing toxins, contamination of fish, and ingestion from fish to people. Orris specifically pointed out that in the case of pregnant women who are encouraged to eat healthily, "It is almost impossible to know which fish are most contaminated."

A standard for all coal-fired power plants that applies across the nation is essential to protect the public. This is what MATS will accomplish. Sen. Inhofe and the corporate polluters don't agree. It's up to the electorate to speak up for the Great Lakes and the country at large.

This article originally appeared on Moms Clean Air Force