The EPA recently finalized its mercury reduction plan for coal-burning power plants. Mercury is a neurotoxin that can damage developing children. Now 16 states are taking the EPA to court, saying the so-called “cap-and-trade” plan doesn’t go far enough. The GLRC’s Gregory Warner reports:
The EPA recently finalized its mercury reduction plan for coal-burning power
plants. Mercury is a neurotoxin that can damage developing children. Now
16 states are taking the EPA to court saying
the so-called “cap-and-trade” plan doesn’t go far enough. The GLRC’s
Gregory Warner reports:
The coalition of states filed the suit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the
DC Circuit, challenging the cap-and-trade rule.
Cap-and-trade allows operators of older power plants to swap pollution
credits with newer plants instead of minimizing their own emissions.
EPA regulators say their program will cut mercury pollution by 70 percent over the
next 12 years. The states say mercury is too dangerous for a go-slow
approach. Emily Green is with the Sierra Club:
“Just a little bit can cause major problems for children’s health in
particular, so right now we have the technology to reduce mercury from coal
plants by 90 percent, that’s what we should do.”
In contrast to the EPA rule, more than 20 states have adopted or are moving
to adopt more stringent rules to reduce mercury emissions.
Environmental groups say they’ve reached a landmark deal with auto and steel makers and the EPA that could prevent tons of mercury from getting into the environment in the future. The GLRC’s Tracy Samilton reports:
Environmental groups say they’ve reached a landmark deal with auto
and steel makers and the EPA that could prevent tons of mercury from
getting into the environment in the future. The GLRC’s Tracy Samilton
The auto industry completely phased out mercury switches in lights and
antilock breaks in 2002, but as many as 60 million of the devices could
still be on the road today.
When a car is finally scrapped and melted down at the steel mill, the
mercury is released into the air. Auto makers and steel plants have
tentatively agreed to share the cost of a national retrieval program to
remove mercury switches from vehicles before they’re recycled.
The Ecology Center was instrumental in brokering the deal. The Center
says the program could potentially reduce overall mercury pollution by
ten percent, and keep 80 tons of mercury out of the environment. The
deal is expected to be finalized within a few weeks.
A recent study seems to indicate that wildlife recover from mercury contamination pretty quickly once emissions restrictions are in place. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:
A recent study seems to indicate that wildlife recover from mercury contamination pretty
quickly once emissions restrictions are in place. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Lester Graham reports:
The study reveals nearby mercury pollution can end up in local fish and wildlife. It’s
been thought that emissions from incinerators and coal-fired power plants spewed
mercury into the atmosphere where it settled out far away from the source.
In this study, published in the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry,
University of Florida scientists determined that mercury in local wading birds rose and
fell with emission levels from nearby sources. Tom Atkeson coordinates the mercury
program at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
“Where we were able to make emissions reductions, we’ve been fortunate enough to see
declines in deposition and then very rapid responses in the aquatic system, lower levels of
mercury in fish and wildlife.”
Environmentalists say this means the Bush proposed cap and trade program for reducing
mercury emissions could lead to local mercury “hot spots” across the nation.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.
The Bush administration is making it easier for coal-burning power plants to avoid upgrading to modern pollution prevention equipment. But in some cases the power companies are bowing to public pressure to reduce pollution anyway. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Ann Alquist reports:
The Bush administration is making it easier for coal-burning power plants to avoid upgrading to
modern pollution prevention equipment. But in some cases the power companies are bowing to
public pressure to reduce pollution anyway. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Ann Alquist
Elizabeth Dickinson didn’t get any kind of warning about air quality in her neighborhood. She
really didn’t need one. She says couldn’t avoid noticing the pollution in the air.
“A couple years ago, there was almost a week where the air quality in my neighborhood was so
bad that you literally couldn’t sleep. There was a burning back in my throat.”
Dickinson lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota, not too far from one of the oldest coal burning plants
operated by Minnesota’s leading supplier of electricity, Xcel Energy.
She and many other people have been actively working to pressure the company to address the air
quality problems they believe are caused by Xcel’s older plants.
And in a rare move among power companies, Xcel Energy is doing something. In May 2002, the
company put forth a voluntary proposal to convert its two oldest coal burning plants to natural
gas. The oldest plant, Riverside, lies in northeast Minneapolis.
(sound of power plant)
Since it opened in 1911, the Riverside plant has changed very little when it comes to emitting
pollutants. It was grandfathered in under the Clean Air Act of 1970 – which means the plant isn’t
subject to federal environmental mandates.
It didn’t have to install modern pollution control devices unless it upgraded the plant. And now,
under the Bush administration’s new rules, even upgrading it might not trigger the threshold that
would require it to reduce emissions.
“For a little bit over two years, one of the first things I was charged with was to look at all the
emissions in and around southeast Minneapolis and Riverside plant came back as a sore thumb
because of the glaring emissions.”
Justin Eibenholtz is the environmental coordinator for a Minneapolis neighborhood improvement
group. He says that’s why Excel’s decision to convert Riverside to natural gas is such a big deal.
Once it’s converted, the old plant will cut air pollutants by 99 percent. Mercury emissions will be
Neighborhood groups such as Eibenhotz’s and big environmental groups alike are praising
Excel’s decision. The Great Lakes Program Coordinator for the Sierra Club, Emily Green, says
the reduction in emissions will mean a better quality of life for residents who live in the Great
Lakes region. That’s because the mercury and other pollutants that were emitted from the plant
often ended up in the Great Lakes through a process called air deposition. That meant pollutants
got into the food chain and contaminated fish.
“The Great Lakes are like a giant bathtub with a very, very slow drain, so that what we put into
the Great Lakes stays there.”
Green says the pollutants don’t go away. They just end up contaminating the air and the water.
“We swim in them, we drink them, you know, the fish swim around in them, and so it’s very,
very important that we recognize, despite their size, how fragile the Great Lakes are.”
Besides polluting the lakes, the air pollution drifted for hundreds of miles, causing health
problems. The effects are already apparent. An independent report commissioned from the
Environmental Protection Agency says pollution from the oldest and dirtiest power plants kills
more than thirty thousand Americans each year – almost twice the number of people killed by
drunk driving and homicide combined.
While the natural gas conversion won’t reduce the level of mercury in the Great Lakes
immediately, it will mean it won’t add to the problem. It also means a more efficient use of a
Ron Ellsner is the project manager for Xcel’s proposal.
“The new combined cycles that we’re going to install are on the order of 30 percent more
efficient than what our current coal cycle is. They do that much better a job converting that
energy into fuel into electricity.”
It comes at a cost, though. Xcel estimates converting its Minneapolis and Saint Paul plants will
amount to one billion dollars. By Xcel’s estimate, it’ll be the most expensive power plant
conversion in the history of the United States, and the cost of the conversion will be passed on to
That’s fine by Elizabeth Dickinson. She says she, and her neighbors, were paying for it in other
ways already, such as additional healthcare costs. Dickinson says the estimated extra 15 cents a
day for her power bill will be worth it.
“You know, these are the hidden costs of coal burning and they’re huge, and you know, they’re
usually left out of these equations and we’re saying they can’t be left out any longer, they just
can’t be, because it’s too high a cost for us as a society.”
Government regulators still have to approve the plan. Minnesota’s utilities commission is
holding a final round of public hearings before voting for or against Xcel’s proposal to convert to
If the conversion is approved, it will likely put pressure on other power companies in the Great
Lakes region to do the same.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Ann Alquist.
A power company in the Great Lakes region is dramatically reducing pollution at two of its power plants. The move could prompt other power companies to do the same. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Ann Alquist reports:
A power company in the Great Lakes region is dramatically reducing pollution at two of
its power plants. The move could prompt other power companies to do the same. The
Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Ann Alquist reports:
Minnesota’s largest supplier of electricity, Xcel Energy, has submitted a voluntary
proposal to convert its two oldest, and dirtiest, coal burning plants to natural gas. The
cost of the conversion – one billion dollars – will be passed on to Xcel’s customers.
It will mean a 99 percent reduction in emissions – and mercury emissions will be
eliminated. The plant itself will undergo some changes, with some of the taller structures
no longer marring the skyline.
Ron Ellsner is the project manager for Xcel’s proposal.
“Cleaning up some of the older equipment that will be abandoned, we hope it has a
positive impact on the landscape for our city and for our neighbors.”
If government regulators approve the proposal, it will likely put pressure on other power
companies in the Great Lakes region to do the same.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Ann Alquist.
A city along Lake Michigan is fighting the construction of a waste-treatment plant. The town filed a lawsuit against the local waste-treatment company that wants to dry and burn sludge from half the surrounding county. City officials say they don’t want an eye sore on their lake front and environmentalists are worried about mercury getting into the lake. But the sanitary district says it has a system that will virtually eliminate emissions. As the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Annie MacDowell reports, environmentalists say that’s not enough:
A city along Lake Michigan is fighting the construction of a waste-treatment plant. The
town filed a lawsuit against the local waste-treatment company that wants to dry and burn
sludge from half the surrounding county. City officials say they don’t want an eye sore on
their lake front and environmentalists are worried about mercury getting into the lake.
But the sanitary district says it has a system that will virtually eliminate emissions. As
the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Annie Macdowell reports, environmentalists say
that’s not enough:
After rolling out of bed in the morning, what’s the first thing you do? Do you use the
toilet? Take a shower? Brush your teeth? Probably one or all of the above. And what
happens to that unwanted dirty water? It just vanishes, right? Flushes into oblivion?
Disappears down the drain? Wrong. All that scummy sludge heads straight for your
local waste water treatment plant.
The North Shore Sanitary District along Lake Michigan in northern Illinois receives 187
tons of waste water a day. That adds up to 20 trillion gallons of the stuff a year. And in
among all that waste there are 26 different toxic metals. At this point, North Shore is
trucking the toxic sludge to landfills and dumping it. Brian Jensen is the general manager
of North Shore. He says toxic chemicals aren’t necessarily safe in a landfill because a
landfill liner can leak.
“If in fact, that liner were to leak, and there’s been a history around our country and in
Europe that these liners do leak, when that happens, the environmental liability is
With these worries in mind, a couple of years ago Jensen started looking around for a
new way to dispose of the sludge. He says a process called “sludge-drying” was the best
Here’s how the system works: the sludge is pumped into a dryer where most of the water
is sucked out. Then the dried sludge is burned as fuel for the next part of the process –
the melter. The melter burns up the organic part of the sludge at 3000 degrees. That’s
hot enough to melt heavy metals. So after everything else is burned away, what remains
are the toxic metals locked up in a glass matrix that looks a lot like lava. It’s called glass
aggregate. It can be used in concrete where it’s sealed and can no longer pollute water or
The only toxic metal that doesn’t go into the glass matrix meltdown is mercury. That’s
because in the hot melter, mercury becomes a vapor. Over the course of the year, north
shore gets about 33 pounds of mercury – a third of it comes from fillings in people’s
teeth. The rest is from industry and commercial sources.
People in the area and environmentalists, object to the idea of the plant emitting all that
mercury into the air. That’s because it could further contaminate Lake Michigan which
already is contaminated by mercury from coal-burning power plants. Cameron Davis is
the head of the Lake Michigan Federation. He says mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin.
“You know the MadHatter in Alice in Wonderland? That character was developed
because in the old days, people who made hats actually used mercury in the hat
manufacturing process, and that mercury being around it in the manufacturing of hats,
would cause people, literally, to go insane, to go crazy.”
Davis says Lake Michigan already has a fish advisory because mercury has contaminated
the water so badly. If people eat the fish, especially expectant mothers and children,
there could be serious health effects. Mothers could pass mercury poisoning onto their
infants. Children’s bodies are especially susceptible because they’re developing so fast.
Davis says anyone who cares about the environment is against the construction of any
new source of mercury emissions.
But Brian Jensen says the North Shore sludge incinerator will fix that problem too. The
plans include a filtration system, to catch mercury in the vapor state. The air travels
through carbon canisters and the mercury particles cling to the carbon. The canisters last
for up to 5 years and then the mercury is recycled and reused. The result is something
less than two pounds of mercury emissions a year. Jensen says that’s such a small
amount that today’s scientific instruments can’t detect it in the normal emissions each day.
They’ve tried. And in the end, Jensen says it could very well be that the new North Shore
Plant will emit no mercury at all.
But Cameron Davis says any uncertainty is unacceptable.
“We do want to encourage different ways to be able to get to zero and if we are in fact
getting to zero, then we’ve got a different game here, and that’s important, but we are
talking about zero.”
But Davis doesn’t have any better ideas for getting rid of the sludge. He says North
Shore should continue landfilling for now.
Michael Murray with the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Office says there is
a better alternative. It’s a process called land application. That’s when sludge is used as
fertilizer for crops.
“There’s a study published on work in France recently where they looked at number of
different options for sewage sludge treatment and they found that land application in
general had the lowest environmental cost, in other words it was the best environmental
Murray says companies must have a really good pre-treatment program if they’re going
to use land application. That means capping levels of toxic metals before they get into
Brian Jensen at North Shore says he looked into land application and saw too many
problems. He says North Shore already has an award-winning pre-treatment program,
but they still get too many metals to land apply. And he’s heard about problems like e-coli bacteria growths from the fecal matter in the sludge. Beyond that, he says they just
have too much sludge and not enough land to fertilize.
Jensen says he’s confident the judge will not let the lawsuit stop north shore sanitary
district from building the plant. It already has the permits from the Illinois Environmental
Protection Agency. He’s amazed that people are giving north shore such a hard time,
when right next door to where they want to build the waste treatment plant, a coal-burning incinerator emits up to 450 pounds of mercury a year.
“The North Shore Sanitary District is truly people that are concerned about the
environment. And this process, even though it probably, it does, in fact, cost a little more
to own and operate than a landfill, the environmental gains, I’m saying the environmental
gains, not losses, are significantly greater than any other sludge disposal method.”
Jensen says environmentalists should be the first to recognize when a waste water
treatment plant is doing the very best job that’s possible with the most recent technology
available instead of criticizing the effort.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Annie Macdowell.
The Inspector General of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the EPA didn’t fund clean up for seven toxic waste sites this fiscal year. As the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Annie Macdowell reports, two of the seven sites are here in the Midwest:
The Inspector General of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the EPA didn’t fund clean-up for seven toxic waste sites this fiscal year. As the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Annie MacDowell reports, two of the seven sites are here in the Midwest:
A tax on chemical and oil companies expired in 1995.
The tax was used to fund clean ups at some of the country’s most polluted sites.
Now most of the funding comes from tax payers.
Clean-up on two Midwest sites was pushed back – the Jennison Wright Corporation in Illinois and Continental Steel in Indiana.
Hazardous chemicals are seeping into the ground water at these two sites.
Bill Muno, the Regional Superfund Director at the EPA, says to clean up more sites each year, Congress would have to increase Superfund appropriations.
“There isn’t enough money in that annual appropriation to cover all the work that needs to be done each year.”
Muno says the EPA Inspector General’s report shows there were more sites in line for funding that were delayed under the Bush Administration.
But he adds that tests show the sites are not an immediate threat to public health.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Annie MacDowell.
Michigan could become the next Great Lakes state to ban the sale of mercury thermometers. Environmentalists are praising the legislation, but say more needs to be done to curb the threat of mercury pollution. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Erin Toner reports:
Michigan could become the next Great Lakes state to ban the sale of
mercury thermometers. Environmentalists are praising the legislation,
but say more needs to be done to curb the threat of mercury pollution.
The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Erin Toner reports:
A bill on its way to Governor John Engler would make Michigan the third
Great Lakes state to ban the sale of Mercury thermometers. Indiana and
Minnesota also have bans in place. Jeff Gearhart is with the Ecology
Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He says in 2000, mercury from
thermometers made up 10-percent of mercury in the state’s solid waste
system. But Gearhart says there are many more sources of mercury
pollution that still need to be addressed, such as appliances and
“It is our hope that this would be the first step toward the state
aggressively going after phasing out mercury use in all products and
addressing how to manage and recover mercury that is already out there
Earlier this month, the U.S. Senate passed a bill that would
effectively ban the sale of mercury thermometers nationwide. The
measure now awaits action in the House Committee on Energy and
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Erin Toner.
Late last month (June), the New York State Department of Health said it
was safe for anglers to eat fish from Onondaga Lake–one of the
country’s most polluted lakes. But now some officials are raising
concerns. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Amy Cavalier reports: