Testimony For the Environment and Public Works Committee
Oversight Hearing on Mercury Emissions
Presented by Senator Olympia J. Snowe
October 1, 1998

First of all, I want to thank you, Senator Chafee, for holding this hearing today as it gives me the opportunity to highlight the problem of mercury pollution in our freshwater lakes in the Northeast.

Mercury, as we have historically thought of it, brings to mind the ancient Roman messenger of the gods, or the symbol that made us all proud, that of a small Mercury capsule carrying a lone astronaut into space.

Mercury, as we are now coming to know it, is one of the most toxic substances in our environment, causing great necrologic damage if ingested by humans, and, unfortunately, remains largely unregulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. There is growing concern around the country about mercury contamination and the risk it posses to those most vulnerable: young children, infants, and the unborn.

Over the last several years, the EPA has conducted considerable research on the sources and effects of manmade mercury pollution, and has confirmed that mercury emissions are getting worse. The research, published in EPA's Report of December, 1997, shows that more than a third of this pollution comes from coal~ burning power plants - close to 33 percent, or the release of approximately 52 tons per year.

Mercury, which is contained in coal and emitted up through smokestacks into the atmosphere as the coal is burned, is then transported through the air and carried downwind for hundreds and hundreds of miles, falling to Earth in snow and rain and ending up in our lakes, rivers, and streams. The mercury is then ingested by fish, and in turn by humans when they eat the fish from these freshwater sources.

In 1993, 27 states issued health advisories to warn the public about consuming mercury-tainted fish. In 1997, 39 states issued health advisories pertaining to eating fish from over 50,000 bodies of water. This should alarm us, especially as the deregulation of the electric industry may lead to a greater use of older, polluting power plants - plants that currently have no emissions regulations for mercury.

In Maine, the beautiful common loon with its haunting call is known as a symbol of conservation - and even appears on license plates, the cost of which funds conservation efforts. The haunting call is now coming from biologists whose studies show that the loons and other birds, such as the bald eagle, may now be having trouble reproducing or fighting diseases because of mercury ingestion.

Last year, Maine's state legislature passed a resolution to limit mercury emissions in the State, and other states are taking aim at similar actions as well. This past June, the New England Governors and the Eastern Canadian Premiers met in Portland and came up with a Mercury Action Plan to address the pervasiveness of mercury in freshwater fish in the Northeast at levels that pose health risks to humans. The representatives also recognized the important economic consequences to the recreational and commercial value of fisheries resources across the region. The Plan addresses how the Northeast can cope with the problem of mercury pollution by taking steps that are within the regions' control or influence.

This is an excellent step forward to decrease regional mercury pollution, but also points out the need for a nationwide information system and controls for mercury releases for the largest polluters, such as the coal-burning power plants, as polluted air does not stop at state borders or even international boundaries. And, on the horizon is the fact that the burning coal continues to rapidly increase in developing nations around the globe.

I was pleased to join as a cosponsor of Senator Leahy's Omnibus Emissions Reduction Act of 1998, which directs the EPA to promulgate mercury emissions standards for the largest emitting sources to reduce these emissions by 95 percent in 5 years. The Act also directs the EPA to work with Canada and Mexico to inventory the sources and pathways of mercury air and water pollution within North America and to reduce transboundary atmospheric and surface mercury pollution. The bill dovetails nicely with the new actions the State of Maine is taking and also the goals of the Mercury Action Plan of the Committee on the Environment of the Conference of Northeast Governors' and Eastern Canadian Premiers.

I want to thank Senator Leahy for his hard work in highlighting the problem of mercury emissions through the introduction of his legislation, and also the House sponsor of the companion bill, Representative Tom Allen, a member of my own Maine delegation. It is my understanding that, realistically, the Omnibus mercury emissions bills will have a short lifespan in this Congress because of time constraints, and were introduced mainly to bring the problem before Congress and the public, to spark debate, and to begin a dialogue, especially with those industries that will be affected by any curbs in emissions and those people most directly affected by the mercury emissions.

Mr. Chairman, your hearing today will go a long way towards developing a much needed solution to the problem of mercury emissions in the environment, and I look forward to working with you and the committee and the Environmental Protection Agency to come up with a fair solution and one that will truly protect the people from this pervasive emissions problem. I thank the Chair.