New Report: Mercury Pollution in New York Harms Public Health

Environment New York

In 2009, power plants in New York emitted more than 700 pounds of mercury pollution, according to the new Environment New York report, “Dirty Energy’s Assault on our Health: Mercury.”  New York is only one piece of the report’s picture, which shows that nationally power plants emitted more than 130,000 pounds of mercury pollution in 2009.  The report comes as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is set to propose a standard to limit mercury and other toxic air pollution from power plants.

“Powering our homes should not poison New York’s kids,” said Caitlin Seeley, Federal Field Organizer for Environment New York. “Mercury pollution from power plants puts our kids and our environment at risk, and we need the Environmental Protection Agency to force these facilities to clean up.”

Coal-fired power plants, which are the largest source of mercury pollution in the United States, emit mercury into our air.  The mercury then falls into our waterways from rain or snow, where it builds up in fish, and then the animals—and people—that consume the fish.  Even very small amounts of mercury can have significant impacts, as studies suggest that a gram-sized drop of mercury can contaminate an entire 20 acre lake.

“People seldom consider the impact their energy use can have on peoples’ health. Each time we flick a switch, more toxic mercury is put out into our air, water and soil.  Every product we buy used energy to make it, which also contributes to global mercury contamination,” said Kathy Curtis, Policy Director for Clean New York. “Much has been done to reduce mercury in products, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what’s emitted by power plants.  Strong federal standards for power plant pollution controls and a transition to renewable energy are needed to protect our health from this toxic chemical,” Curtis added.

Our research found that:

  • Mercury pollution is a widespread health risk. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that one in six women of childbearing age has enough mercury in her bloodstream to put her unborn child at risk for the health effects of mercury pollution, including learning disabilities, developmental disorders, and lower IQs, should she become pregnant. This means that more than 689,000 of the 4.1 million babies born every year could be exposed to dangerous levels of mercury pollution.
  • Mercury pollution harms our environment.  Fish and animals that consume fish suffer from reproductive failure and mortality as a result of mercury pollution. More U.S. waters are closed to fishing because of mercury contamination than because of any other toxic contamination problem. The EPA found that more than 50 New York waterways are contaminated by mercury pollution, contaminating fish that live in the waterways and making it dangerous for humans to consume this fish.
  • While New York has taken state and regional steps to reduce mercury pollution from power plants, pollution from power plants in neighboring states continues to travel into New York and put our families at risk.  In 2008 it was estimated that 50% of the mercury deposition in New York could be attributed to the US sources immediately upwind of the state. Earlier this year New York Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman, announced his plan to sue Pennsylvania power plant, Homer City Generation, over its multiple violations of the Clean Air Act.  The Homer City Generation Plant emitted 738 pounds of mercury pollution in 2009, almost as much as all of the power plants in New York State combined.

The report comes as the EPA is set to propose a standard to limit mercury and other toxic air pollution from power plants in March, and finalize the standard by November.  Environment New York is calling on the EPA to issue a strong standard that will significantly reduce these harmful pollutants from power plants, and specifically cut mercury pollution by more than 90%. But while the EPA is undertaking this rulemaking, Congress and industry lobbyists are working to prevent the EPA from doing its job, by threatening to introduce legislation to block this and other rules to limit dangerous air pollution.

“New York’s parents do everything they can to protect their children’s health; now it’s time for the EPA to do its part,” said Seeley. “New York’s federal Senators and Representatives should stand up for our families and support the EPA.”