BEFORE THE U.S. SENATE ENVIRONMENT AND PUBLIC WORKS COMMITTEE
CLEAN AIR, WETLANDS, PRIVATE PROPERTY AND NUCLEAR SAFETY SUBCOMMITTEE
Testimony of TIM EDER, Director and MICHAEL MURRAY, Ph.D., Staff Scientist
Great Lakes Natural Resource Center
NATIONAL WILDLIFE FEDERATION
October 1, 1998

Introduction

On behalf of over 4 million members and supporters around the country, the National Wildlife Federation ("NWF") is pleased to have the opportunity to present this testimony to the Senate today in support of legislation sponsored by Senator Leahy, S. 1915, and on the need for Congressional action to address the problem of mercury contamination in waters of the United States. Our members are active in hunting, angling, birdwatching and other outdoor activities, and care deeply about the health of our environment.

Our members are concerned about the health of people that enjoy or depend on catching and eating fish. We are especially concerned about segments of the U.S. population that are more sensitive to toxic chemicals, including populations of young children, pregnant women, and women of childbearing age. Information to be presented in this testimony shows that the health of these groups may be compromised or seriously damaged due to exposure to mercury and other toxic chemicals. Also, we understand that for wildlife to thrive, they need clean and healthy habitat. This includes protection from exposure to toxic chemicals like mercury that can impair their reproductive capacity, their ability to hunt and capture prey, and other abilities. In fact, NWF members and supporters care enough about mercury that two resolutions dealing with mercury issues have been approved at Annual Meetings in the past two years. In Resolution No. 2 for 1996, the Federation adopted a resolution addressing the atmospheric deposition of pollutants to the Great Lakes, Lake Champlain, and other Great Waters. The resolution includes a call for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to create a plan with a nationwide goal and time lines to reduce atmospheric mercury deposition by 90% by the year 2005. NWF Resolution No. 7, adopted in 1997, addresses energy deregulation, and supports state and federal legislation that requires "all fossil fuel burning power plants to comply with new source performance standards contained in applicable state and federal air pollution laws."

Mercury is a toxic metal that is being increasingly recognized as a threat to the health of numerous wildlife species and tens of thousands of women and children around the country.

The most significant sources of the metal in the U.S. environment include coal-fired power plants and incinerators emitting mercury to the air. After finding its way into water bodies, mercury can build up in the food chain, leading to high concentrations in fish that can then expose certain wildlife and people to the metal. The fact that 40 state health departments have issued fish consumption advisories warning certain populations to limit the amount of fish they eat due to mercury exposure indicates the severity of the problem.

While there has been some progress in dealing with several mercury sources in the past few years, much more work needs to be done to fully address the ever-present problem of mercury contamination in the U.S. and beyond. Senator Leahy's Omnibus Mercury Emissions Reduction Act is a necessary start in this effort, and an effort that we believe Congress should enact.

Mercury in the Environment, and its Ecological and Human Health Effects

While mercury occurs naturally in the environment, most studies have shown that mercury levels have increased appreciably in the recent past due to human activity. Since the beginning of the industrial era, researchers estimate that average mercury concentrations in the air have increased as much as five-fold. The recent Environmental Protection Agency Mercury Study Report to Congress noted that combustion sources, including coal-fired power plants, municipal waste combustors and medical waste incinerators, make up the great majority of current releases of mercury to the environment. Once in the air, mercury can be deposited either near its source, regionally, or transported over hundreds or thousands of miles to be deposited in distant lands or waters. Mercury that winds up in aquatic sediments can then be transformed to methylmercury, which works its way up the food chain leading to potentially high concentrations in fish.

The effects of mercury contamination on fish, wildlife and people has been increasingly well documented in recent years. Mercury is a known neurotoxin, which can effect the nervous systems of most vertebrates, because they lack barriers to block mercury from entering and interfering with the normal functioning of cells, and because internal mechanisms to detoxify mercury are not always sufficient.

Effects of Mercury in Fish and Wildlife

In fish, laboratory studies have shown that moderate to high mercury levels can result in impaired sperm generation, growth reduction or inhibition, reduced hatching success, and embryo or larval mortality. In addition, high levels of mercury in water have been shown to cause mortality to the embryo or larvae of frogs. In laboratory studies on wildlife, effects from methylmercury exposure include reduced hatching success and duckling survival in mallard ducks, and reduced hatchability and high embryo and duckling mortality in American black ducks. In addition, field studies have found reduced hatching success in common loons and common terns in mercury-contaminated waters in northwestern Ontario and other regions. In addition, mercury-related reproductive impairments have been seen in common loons nesting in lakes in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, Canada. Common loons frequently nest on low-pH, low alkalinity lakes that have higher mercury levels. Many lakes in the northern Great Lakes region and New England fall in this category.

Effects of Mercury in People, and the Controversy over Acceptable Exposure Levels

The harmful effects of mercury on people have been well known since the poisoning incidence in Minamata, Japan in the 1950s. Dozens of people were victims of methylmercury poisoning after consuming fish contaminated by chemical plant effluent in Minamata Bay. In the 1950s and 1970s, three separate epidemic poisonings occurred in Iraq, with 459 deaths attributed to mercury-contaminated grain.

The concern of NWF and most health agencies in the U.S. stems from the effects of mercury exposure on children, when they are exposed in utero as a result of their mothers' consumption of mercury-contaminated fish. These exposure levels are generally much lower than the poisoning events in Japan or Iraq. However, lower levels does not mean without harm -- elevated mercury levels in the U.S. are thought to put up to 166,000 pregnant women at risk of exposing their fetuses to harmful mercury levels in a given year.

Two long-term studies have been examining the effects of fish consumption and mercury levels on children exposed in the womb. The study in the Seychelles Islands in the Pacific has found decreased activity level of boys at 29-months as the only negative response correlated to mercury exposure in the behavioral and other tests given to the children. In contrast, a study of a pilot whale-consuming population in the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic has found mercury-related deficits in language, attention, and memory in seven-year-old children exposed to methylmercury in the womb.

Both of these studies are important because they are being used to establish methylmercury reference doses or minimal risk levels (i.e., the level of exposure thought to cause no adverse effects) by federal agencies such as the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and U.S. EPA.

While much media attention has focused on recent results from the Seychelles Islands study, it is important to recognize limitations in that study. These limitations must be weighed as health officials in U.S. agencies establish safe exposure levels, and thus, fish consumption advisories in the U.S.:

1. Developmental tests in the Faroe Islands population have been recognized as more sensitive in detecting subtle cognitive and motor disturbances than the tests used thus far in the Seychelles study. As pointed out by Kathryn Mahaffey of the U.S. EPA, while evaluation with these more subtle tests are planned, current findings from the Seychelles should be regarded as interim.

2. In earlier analyses from the Seychelles group, several cases of high mercury exposure (and effects) were excluded as outlying points, even though such data could show real effects in more children due to mercury exposure.

3. In the recent report on the Seychelles study, researchers reported improved scores on several of the tests at higher methylmercury (and thus fish consumption) levels, indicating some apparent benefit from the higher fish consumption. The presence of components in fish such as omega-3 fatty acids is recognized as a benefit of consuming uncontaminated fish. However, because the Seychellois are consuming high levels of fish at relatively low mercury levels, the benefits to other populations (such as sports anglers and others in the U.S.) consuming smaller amounts of fish with higher mercury levels may not be realized.

Most median fish methylmercury values in the Seychelles study were in the range 0.05 to 0.25 parts per million (ppm), whereas methylmercury concentrations in the popular sportfish walleye in Wisconsin average approximately 0.5 ppm, or from 2 to 10 times higher than the amount of contamination in the Seychelles fish. Indeed average mercury concentrations in northern pike, three types of bass, and walleye in a recent survey of U.S. fish were 0.31, 0.38 and 0.52 ppm, respectively.

4. The Seychelles Islands population, like that in the Faroe Islands, is quite homogeneous. This means that the study's conclusions may not transfer well to the U.S. where we have a more diverse population. For example, the much greater genetic, racial, and ethnic diversity in the U.S., combined with widely-varying fish consumption rates across peoples who have lived in the country over varying numbers of generations may lead to much greater variation in sensitivity to mercury exposure than would be expected in either cohort study.

Mercury Contamination Around the U.S.: A Snapshot

Mercury contamination in sediments, waters and wildlife, and elevated human exposures, have been observed at numerous sites around the United States. A few examples are noted below.

-- In a study of mercury levels and fish consumption in Wisconsin Chippewa Indians, 20 percent of the surveyed participants had blood mercury levels in excess of 5 microgram per liter (the upper limit of normal, unexposed populations), and were highly associated with recent walleye consumption. The researchers concluded that although there was little concern for overt health effects in Chippewa adults, the levels observed "may be associated with a slightly increased risk of neurologic effects (primarily developmental delays) in infants."

-- Recent research has re-examined the long-standing mercury contamination problem in Poplar Creek, Tennessee. As a result of the lithium-isotope separation process used to produce nuclear weapons from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s, 150 tons of mercury were released into the creek. Researchers recently reported that contrary to expectations, sediment and water concentrations of mercury increased with distance downstream from the source, with water concentrations up to 560 parts per trillion (ppt) measured (compared to a few ppt in many "background" waters). The researchers attributed these results to sediment deposition and resuspension, in part due to hydropower operations.

-- In a recent study of mercury contamination along the Texas coast, researchers reported that prey organisms (e.g. algae, clams, crustaceans) had higher mercury concentrations in industrially-contaminated Lavaca Bay as compared to nearby Keller Bay.

-- Much recent research on mercury contamination in the environment has been directed at the Florida Everglades. Researchers have reported in recent years finding elevated concentrations of mercury in panthers, double-crested cormorants, alligators, and bald eagles that could be causing harmful effects on the behavior or reproduction of the populations. For example, a recent study reported that 15 percent of double-crested cormorants studied had liver mercury concentrations that would be lethal in some other bird species.

-- A recent study of the endangered wood stork in southeastern Georgia found that all four colonies studied were at risk of sublethal effects due to mercury in the birds' diets.

Fish Consumption Advisories in the United States, and the Importance of Protecting Public Health

According to the U.S. EPA, fish consumption advisories have been issued by health departments in at least 40 states. Due to the special sensitivities of the fetus and young children, the most strict advisories are generally directed at pregnant women, women of child-bearing age, and young children. As of December 1997, 15 states around the country had statewide fish consumption advisories in place due to mercury contamination, the most for any pollutant. Advisories for either all lakes and/or rivers in a state are most common in the Midwest (e.g. Ohio, Michigan) and New England (Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire). Statewide advisories for coastal waters are mostly in the Gulf states (Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida). The number of advisories for mercury nearly doubled from 1993 to 1997 (i.e. from 899 to 1782).

The fact that advisories exist for every body of water in several states indicates that the pathway by which mercury enters these water bodies is likely via the atmosphere. The fact that advisories have nearly doubled indicates both that more testing is being done and that the problem has not subsided.

State health departments generally base fish consumption advisories on recommendations from federal agencies such as the ATSDR, EPA, and FDA. The ATSDR recommended in its recent draft Toxicological Profile for Mercury a minimal risk level (level of mercury exposure thought to result in no significant effects) of 0.5 :g/kg body weight -- day. This recommendation is higher by a factor of five than the current EPA level, and reflects reliance on interim results from the Seychelles Islands. The ATSDR noted that they used an uncertainty factor of 1.0 in determining this level, which means that they essentially used no safety factor to apply the Seychelles results to the U.S. population. In light of the issues raised above regarding the Seychelles study and widespread application its results, and as we noted in a letter to the agency on February 17, 1998, NWF believes it is extremely premature for the ATSDR or any other agency to assume no uncertainty in recommended methylmercury exposure rates based on interim results from the Seychelles study.

Sources of Mercury in the United States, Deposition Patterns, and the Potential for Reducing Emissions

Sources and Deposition Patterns of Mercury in the United States

The recent Mercury Study Report to Congress summarized estimates of mercury releases to the U.S. environment. Globally, a recent study estimated that the amount of mercury emitted to the air has increased by a factor of 4.5 over the past century due to human activities, although the researchers noted that the atmospheric burden has increased by about a factor of three, due to deposition near the sources. In its discussion of mercury discharges to the environment from human activity, the EPA Study Report focused on mercury emission to the U.S. atmosphere, and noted that 87 percent of emissions for 1995 were estimated to be from combustion sources. Overall, of the estimated 158 tons annually of mercury emissions from human activity in the U.S., 32.8 percent was from coal- and oil-fired power plants (with the great majority due to coal plants -- oil-fired plants are estimated to contribute 0.1 percent of the total), 18.7 percent from municipal waste combustors, 17.9 percent from commercial and industrial boilers, 10.1 percent from medical waste incinerators, 4.4 percent from hazardous waste incinerators, and the remainder from other miscellaneous sources.

Fossil fuel-fired power plants and industrial and commercial boilers are mercury emitters due to the presence of trace amounts of mercury in the raw fuel. Medical and municipal waste incinerators emit mercury largely due to the presence of discarded mercury-containing products in the waste stream.

In an emission inventory for the state of Ohio, NWF estimated that over 98 percent of mercury releases to the state's air and water were to the air. Fifty-five percent of the 16,700 pounds of annual mercury emissions to the air were from coal-fired power plants. Our study indicated that 50 times more mercury was released from human-generated air sources than from natural sources in Ohio, based on a very rough estimate of natural emissions from soils.

While not all of the emitted mercury from a given industrial facility will wind up in a nearby waterbody, these releases of mercury can be put into perspective by considering the very small amount of mercury necessary to contaminate a given lake. A medium-sized coal-fired power plant, which typically has little mercury-removing technology, can emit in the neighborhood of 50 pounds of mercury per year. By contrast, 5,000 walleye in the two- to three-pound size class contaminated to a level of 0.5 ppm (a level sufficient to trigger fish consumption advisories) would contain a total of less than one-tenth of an ounce of mercury.

The EPA emissions estimates for many combustion sectors (power plants, incinerators, cement kilns, etc.) are based on estimates using the amount of material burned (e.g. coal, oil, or other fuel), and estimated emission factors (concentration of mercury in the fuel). Thus, there is still some uncertainty in actual mercury emissions, in particular for the utility industry. A thorough analysis of actual emissions rates and measurements of mercury content of as-fired coal would clarify the extent to which utilities are a major contributor to U.S. mercury emissions. Unfortunately, report language currently EPA Appropriations bill currently before a House-Senate Conference Committee would block EPA's plans to collect this information, as well as any other regulatory action directed at mercury emissions from utilities.

As part of the Mercury Study Report to Congress, the EPA also conducted a thorough modeling study estimating mercury deposition patterns in relation to known sources. The study estimated that while as much as two-thirds of the mercury emitted from anthropogenic sources in the U.S. may be deposited outside the country, mercury deposition within the country would be highest in the southern Great Lakes and Ohio River Valley, the Northeast, and scattered areas in southern states, including Florida. All of these regions are within or downwind of significant industrial regions or regions where there is a high concentration of coal-fired utilities. Due to several factors, including funding limitations and the fact that clean measurement techniques have become available only relatively recently to measure mercury in precipitation and surface waters, there are limited data on actual mercury deposition patterns around the country. The authors above note that the limited available field data tend to agree with the regional mercury depositional modeling, within a factor of two.

A recent survey of mercury concentrations in common loons found a general regional trend of increasing concentrations from west to east across North America, which mirrors the general pattern seen in the Mercury Study Report. In another study measuring mercury at a site in the Lake Champlain basin, highest mercury deposition occurred during spring and summer months, and highest mercury values during these seasons were associated with air transport from the west, southwest and northwest. These are the general directions of regions of significant industrial mercury sources.

Other recent studies have confirmed that human-generated mercury sources can have significant regional impacts. A modeling study examining mercury deposition in the Great Lakes estimated that 83 percent of the mercury loadings were attributable to anthropogenic sources. Based on limited mercury data and relationships to sulfate and other parameters, researchers inferred that some of the higher mercury concentrations detected in air and rain in northern Wisconsin likely had sources in industrial regions nearby.

Current Regulations and Initiatives to Reduce Mercury Releases to the Environment

Regulatory Programs to Control Mercury

The EPA has moved forward in recent years to implement several regulations on known mercury-emitting sectors. The outstanding exception to this trend is that there are no controls on mercury released from coal-burning utilities. The agency has issued final emissions limits for municipal waste combustors and medical waste incinerators, and has proposed emissions standards for hazardous waste incinerators, including cement kilns that burn hazardous waste. Regarding other sectors, including commercial/industrial boilers, chlor-alkali plants using the mercury cell process, and Portland cement kilns, the agency is "evaluating the impacts of mercury reductions", but has yet to promulgate final rules.

Notably absent are controls for the largest known source sector of mercury emissions, fossil fuel-fired power plants. As controls on other sectors, including municipal and medical waste incinerators, are fully implemented by the states, emissions from these sectors will continue to drop, creating a situation in which relative contributions from coal-fired utilities will increase. In fact, the EPA's recent Utility Air Toxics report estimated that annual mercury emissions from electric utilities will increase from 51 to 60 tons between 1994 and 2010.

While the EPA has not proposed formal emissions limits for utilities, the agency has proposed a plan to monitor mercury levels in as-fired coal at all coal-fired power plants, and to monitor mercury concentrations in stack exhaust at selected plants. This proposal has created intense opposition from the utility industry, in spite of claims from some in the industry that not enough is known about the actual amounts and forms of mercury emitted to consider controls. This opposition has resulted in the report language in the EPA Appropriations bill. NWF urges the Senate to seek removal of this report language. It can only be in everyone's interest to have more complete, accurate information on actual emissions from all known mercury sources.

While there has been very limited EPA action addressing mercury from electric utilities, controls recently promulgated on particular matter and nitrogen oxide emissions may, in small part, help address the mercury problem. The need for protecting our air from excessive levels of particulates and ozone is clear, in terms of the thousands of deaths each year that can be prevented with these controls in place. Although scrubbers and filters for these other pollutants will not specifically address mercury, which is more difficult to trap when it is in the gas phase, there will likely be some incidental capture of mercury, which will aid in reducing mercury emissions from plants subject to the new standards, as discussed below.

Voluntary Initiatives

In addition to regulatory approaches, there are voluntary initiatives that have begun in several regions and states. These include sector-specific initiatives, statewide programs, and regional plans to address mercury contamination. Minnesota has innovative programs to encourage product substitution in cases where non-mercury-containing products are available.

NWF has worked with representatives of the health care industry and municipal waste water treatment plants to develop common-sense approaches to eliminating mercury in products in the waste stream of those two sectors. Our office has published two reports, Mercury Pollution Prevention in Healthcare: A Prescription for Success, and Mercury Pollution Prevention for City Wastewater Plants: A Guide for Great Lakes Communities. These reports include several case-studies of facilities that have substantially reduced the amount of mercury used and released to the environment in the Great Lakes region.

The Binational Toxics Strategy signed by the U.S. and Canada to virtually eliminate persistent toxic substances in the Great Lakes region includes a goal of reducing releases of mercury from U.S. sources by 50 percent by 2006. A mercury workgroup is examining strategies for reducing mercury use in various industries, and will hold a meeting later this fall to address mercury emissions from the utility sector in the region.

A plan that could have regulatory components was signed by the New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers on June 8, 1998, to reduce regional mercury emissions by 50 percent by 2003. The agreement calls for tighter controls on incinerators, utilities, and other sectors, elimination of non-essential uses of mercury in household and other products, and source reduction, segregation, and safe waste management to minimize releases of mercury through the waste stream.

While all these initiatives are laudable, it is unlikely that the ambitious goals in the regional initiatives (50 percent overall mercury reductions) will be met without a strong regulatory commitment to contend with the largest mercury source coal-burning utilities.

Solutions to the Mercury Problem in the United States

Due to the widespread problem of mercury contamination in the U.S. and beyond, a multi-pronged strategy is needed to reduce mercury levels so that wildlife and people are free of the threats posed by mercury pollution. Given that a major source sector in the U.S. remains without specific controls in place for mercury, increased attention to the electric utility sector is an essential place to begin.

Controls on Fossil Fuel-Fired Power Plants

As noted above, the relative contribution of coal-fired power plants to the total mercury emissions load in the U.S. will continue to increase over the next decade and beyond if nothing is done. While most other major mercury-emitting sectors either comply now or will soon be required to comply with mercury emission standards, the utility industry continues to have no requirements to even monitor mercury emissions, let alone control emissions. Senator Leahy's bill is a step in the right direction to correct that situation. Not only does it require the promulgation, under the Clean Air Act, of controls requiring specific reduction targets, it also requires that a sensible monitoring program for emissions and fuel mercury levels be required in both the utility and commercial/industrial boiler industries.

Opponents of increased controls to reduce mercury from the utility sector have advanced several flawed arguments. These include 1) Much of the mercury emitted is transported outside the U.S., thus entering the global mercury pool; 2) Some of the mercury deposited on the U.S. comes from sources outside the U.S.; 3) Not enough is known about mercury emissions, deposition, and exposure in people to promulgate controls now; 4) Controls for mercury would be too expensive.

The arguments that much of the utility industry's mercury emissions are transported outside the U.S., and that the U.S. is also impacted by foreign mercury sources are flawed for these reasons:

1)Although modeling research shows that as much as two-thirds of the U.S. utility mercury emissions may drift outside the U.S., the data also show that mercury deposition within the country is highest in and near industrial regions, including regions with more coal-fired power plants. Also, this argument is similar to suggesting that dilution is the solution to pollution. It may be true that if an exhaust stack is tall enough, the pollutants will be transported far from the source. But for pollutants such as mercury, that do not break down in the environment, even small amounts can bioaccumulate up the food chain to dangerous levels for people, fish, and wildlife.

2) There are ongoing questions within the research community on the extent to which mercury emissions from utilities are mostly transported long distances. Preliminary research in several areas of the U.S. indicates that there may be significant regional deposition (i.e. within several hundred miles) close to fossil fuel-fired utilities and other sources.

3) Although other countries are also emitting mercury, the U.S., as a powerful industrial nation, should show responsibility and leadership in controlling pollution that drifts past our borders. The U.S. has no moral authority to prod other countries if we are not doing everything we can to reduce pollution at home, especially given that we have more resources and technical capability to address the problem. The U.S. should be setting an example of environmental stewardship to other countries rather than continuing to allow extensive pollution from decades-old power plants.

The argument that there is insufficient knowledge about mercury transport and exposure to justify controls is also flawed. More research on mercury transport, deposition, and human exposure is needed. However, as noted above, evidence already clearly shows that utility mercury emissions are causing problems throughout much of the country. Moreover, other sources of mercury pollution, including incinerators, are already implementing controls, while mercury pollution from utilities goes on un-abated. Operators of municipal waste water treatment plants are justifiably concerned about the costs of capturing and removing small amounts of mercury in order to meet water quality standards necessary to protect the health of people and the environment. It simply goes against common sense to require some dischargers to spend large amounts of money to prevent mercury pollution while the biggest source continues to pollute unchecked.

Finally, there are several flaws with and questions regarding the claim that controls for mercury would be too expensive.

1) Any evaluation of the costs of instituting pollution controls should consider the costs of the pollution itself. Elevated mercury levels in the U.S. are thought to put up to 166,000 pregnant women at risk of exposing their fetuses to harmful mercury levels in a given year. The risk to these 166,000 women is that their children will suffer from neurological or development problems. How do we put a price tag on the lost intelligence or potential of a child?

2) Another cost to consider is the extent to which mercury advisories discourage anglers from fishing in specific locations. According to the most recent National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, there were 17 million angler trips and expenditures (trip and equipment) of $1.4 billion in the Great Lakes region alone in 1996.

3) It is known that utility industry cost estimates have been inflated in the past, as was demonstrated in the debates on compliance cost estimates around the time of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments. In order to address the problem of acid rain in the U.S., Title IV of the act required 110 mostly coal-fired power plants to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions to 2.5 pounds per million BTU heat produced by 1995 (Phase I). Estimates for complying with Phase I limits ranged up to $5 billion annually by the Edison Electric Institute, and in other cases up to $30 billion annually for all utility provisions. The actual costs of achieving compliance with Phase I sulfur dioxide emission requirements was calculated in 1995 by the Energy Information Administration to be $836 million. This figure is approximately 0.6 percent of the annual operating costs for investor-owned utilities in 1995.

The EPA Mercury Study Report estimated that reducing mercury from coal-fired utilities would cost $5 billion annually, based on an analysis of model plants. This sum has to be considered in light of the unquantifiable benefits that would accrue to families that could someday consume fish without concern for mercury-caused problems on their children, as well as improved health of loons and other wildlife and the factors noted above. In addition, as has been the experience with nearly all other cases of industrial controls, it is highly likely that new rules necessary to protect human health and the environment would create incentives for the development of new technologies that can more efficiently and cheaply reduce mercury emissions. Thus, the annual costs of mercury reductions will likely decrease after more research and development of technologies.

Improved pollution controls on utilities are needed not simply to reduce mercury emissions, but emissions of other pollutants as well, including ozone-forming nitrogen oxides, acid rain-forming sulfur dioxide, particulate matter and other components that contribute to regional haze, and carbon dioxide that contributes to global warming. A comprehensive approach that addresses these sources alone should have the added benefit of reducing some mercury incidentally. Given the new regulations for ozone and particulate matter and the interest among some in industry, and millions of consumers, for more environmentally-friendly forms of energy generation, this should be recognized as a window of opportunity for the electric utility industry to begin a committed transformation to a cleaner energy future.

Several Mercury Control Strategies and Technologies Available to the Electric Utility Industry

Promising strategies currently available for mercury control include fuel switching (i.e. switching from coal to natural gas, which contains less mercury), advanced coal cleaning, flue gas desulfurization scrubbers, and activated carbon injection. Fuel switching (in particular, switching from coal to natural gas) is a relatively simple technique for drastically reducing mercury emission, given that the mercury levels in natural gas are much lower than levels in coal. In addition, with the relatively abundant supplies of natural gas currently available, and utility deregulation beginning in a number of states, this should be a priority for utilities competing for consumers desiring cleaner energy generation.

In some studies, advanced coal cleaning has resulted in reduced mercury levels in coal by up to 60 percent. In other pilot studies, activated carbon injection in combination with other techniques and lower flue gas temperatures has achieved median mercury reductions as high as 98 percent. The problem of large amounts of carbon needed for this technology may yet be solved by other innovations.

Another control technique is the use of flue gas desulfurization scrubbers, which are currently installed on 25 percent of U.S. coal-fired generating units. Although these scrubbers are designed to remove sulfur dioxide, they can be effective at removing some of the mercury in flue gases as well. More widespread adoption of this technique by other U.S. utilities, in order to address the continuing problem of acid deposition in New England, parts of the Appalachian Mountains, and elsewhere, would have the added benefit of mercury reductions. Other emerging technologies include modifying standard sorbents to increase their capacity to absorb mercury, modification of existing technologies (such as flue gas desulfurization scrubbers), the Enhanced Limestone Injection Dry Scrubbing process, and enhanced fly ash scrubbing.

A Comprehensive Approach to Controls in the Utility Sector

The existence of continuing problems of mercury contamination causing fish advisories and health impairments, acid deposition affecting freshwater ecosystems and forests in many parts of the eastern one-third of the country, ozone and particulate pollution causing respiratory illnesses in thousands, and carbon dioxide contributing to the buildup of greenhouse gases, all point to the need for a comprehensive approach to dealing with environmental problems from power generation. In the interim, the use of co-controls (i.e. capturing mercury as well as other pollutants) should be pursued wherever possible, and will lead to reduced costs of complying with emissions standards and improved benefits for the environment and human health.

It is important to keep in mind that in this critical early phase of utility deregulation, there may be pressures for a number of utilities to shift resources to the cheapest generation systems available. Unfortunately, these may be old, dirty coal plants. The provisions of S. 1915 would help ensure that this situation does not result in even more mercury pollution than has already occurred over the past decade.

Other Provisions of S. 1915

In addition to the sound recommendations on requirements for the utility industry to reduce mercury emissions, S. 1915 also contains needed provisions to address mercury emissions from other sectors, including municipal waste combustors, medical waste incinerators, and hazardous waste incinerators. Although rules are either promulgated or in review for these sectors, the bill adds important language on monitoring, reporting and/or source separation that are important provisions not currently being considered in rules for these sectors.

The recommendations in the bill for controls on coal- and oil-fired commercial and industrial boiler units are a welcome and necessary component of the bill, given that this sector was estimated to contribute 18 percent of mercury emissions in the 1994-95 national emission inventory. While Portland cement plants are a slightly less significant source of annual mercury emissions in the U.S., the potential for mercury contaminated dust to deposit in nearby populated areas indicates the need for the types of strong controls included in S. 1915.

Similarly, the bill's strong permitting, monitoring and reporting requirements for chlor-alkali plants would insure that this sector, which is important both in terms of mercury use and emissions, will be subject to stringent emissions limits. Although the number of chlor-alkali plants using the mercury-cell process in the U.S. is relatively low (14), the significant mercury use in the industry (approximately 160 tons/year) indicates a crucial need to address what may be an under-estimated source of significant mercury releases. The prospect of new controls on mercury emissions may help spur some facilities to conduct more thorough life-cycle assessments of the fate of mercury used in their plants, and potentially switch to one of the other non-mercury-based technologies.

Finally, Section 11 of S. 1915 contains a number of important provisions to address mercury in an international context, including the requirement for completion of an emissions inventory for North America. Requirements which include efforts to describe mercury transport pathways, as well as recommendations for pollution control measures and options for eliminating or reducing transboundary mercury pollution would be pioneering efforts to increase our ability to understand, prevent and control mercury pollution. In addition, the provision to evaluate the adequacy, completeness, consistency, and public dissemination of fish consumption advisory information addresses an extremely important issue. The reporting requirement would ensure easy public access to advisory information at all geographic levels, and a compilation would allow greater ease in assessing the consistency and completeness of the state advisories.

Conclusion

NWF applauds Senator Leahy and this committee for its leadership in addressing this important issue. Everyday across this country, a grandfather takes his granddaughter to a lake for an afternoon of fishing. If they are lucky, they will enjoy each other's company and a beautiful afternoon with nature. They might even catch some fish. If they do, the grandfather will face a dilemma. If they are like most daughters, they will beg to take those fish home and cook them for dinner. Unfortunately, chances are good that those fish contain small amounts of mercury. The amount of mercury may be safe for granddad. It might even be safe for his granddaughter. But, if they are from one of the 15 states that have a statewide advisory warning them about unsafe levels of mercury in their fish, granddad will have to decide how much risk to subject his granddaughter to. Even worse, chances are good that they like most people are completely unaware of what advisories the state issues for their lake.

S. 1915 is an important step toward reducing and preventing mercury pollution across this country. S. 1915 sets important benchmarks and timelines for reducing pollution from the most important sources so that someday, people will be able to eat fish from our nation's lakes, rivers and streams without risking the health of themselves or their families.

Notes