Power plants are the largest industrial source of U.S. air emissions of mercury, a potent neurotoxin that poses serious health hazards. Mercury is particularly harmful to the developing brain; even lowlevel exposure can cause learning disabilities, developmental delays, lowered IQ, and problems with attention and memory. While current law requires swift, steep reductions in power plant mercury emissions, the Bush administration recently promulgated regulations that allow power plants to avoid the Clean Air Act requirement to reduce mercury and other toxic air pollutants quickly and by the maximum achievable amount. This report uses the most recent available data reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Toxics Release Inventory to analyze power plant mercury emissions by state, county, zip code, facility, and company.
When power plants burn coal or wastes containing mercury, their smokestacks emit mercury, some of which is washed out of the air onto land and into waterways, where it may be converted into methylmercury, an organic form of mercury that builds up in fish. Scientists found that a gram of mercury, about a drop, deposited in a mid-sized Wisconsin lake over the course of a year was enough to contaminate the lake’s fish.
Eating contaminated fish is the primary pathway for human exposure. Indeed, mercury pollution is now so pervasive that 44 states, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the EPA have issued fish consumption advisories warning people to avoid or limit their consumption of certain types of fish. Moreover, EPA scientists estimate that one in six women of childbearing age has enough mercury in her blood to put her child at risk should she become pregnant.
This report analyzes the most recent EPA data on mercury air emissions from power plants. Key findings in the report include the following:
– Power plants in the U.S. collectively emitted 90,108 pounds of mercury into the air in 2003. Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Alabama were the states with the most mercury air emissions from power plants in 2003.
– Counties with the highest mercury air emissions from power plants were concentrated in states in the Gulf Coast, Midwest, and Mid-Atlantic regions. More than half of the top 50 counties with the highest mercury air emissions were located in just seven states: Alabama, Florida, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and West Virginia. In the top county, Armstrong County, Pennsylvania, power plant mercury emissions totaled 1,527 pounds in 2003.
– The most polluting 100 facilities emitted 57,242 pounds of mercury into the air in 2003, or 64% of power plant mercury emissions. Most of these facilities—nearly 60%—were located in just nine states: Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and West Virginia. Five of the 10 most polluting facilities were located in Texas.
– The most polluting 15 companies emitted 48,353 pounds of mercury in 2003, or 54% of total U.S. power plant mercury emissions. Three companies— American Electric Power, Southern Company, and Reliant Energy, which collectively own 57 facilities—emitted 19,694 pounds of mercury in 2003, or 22% of total U.S. power plant mercury emissions.
Rather than let many of the nation’s power plants continue to emit or even increase their mercury emissions, the Bush administration should protect public health by rewriting its mercury rules to ensure the maximum, timely reductions in power plant mercury pollution that the law requires.