There's been a call from some quarters to roll back environmental regulations, particularly those dealing with air pollution, as a partial "remedy" to our nation's economic woes. In reality, this move would have just the opposite effect. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is slated to finalize a long-overdue Utility Air Toxics Rule in November that for the first time will require controls on mercury emissions from major U.S. coal-fired power plants.
New research from the Great Lakes region shows that the extent and severity of mercury pollution is greater than previously recognized (http://www.briloon.org/mercuryconnections/GreatLakes). Most people are exposed to toxic mercury through consumption of fish. The average mercury concentrations in six commonly eaten game fishes exceeded the EPA human health criterion in 60 percent of the Great Lakes region.
And mercury's risks extend beyond human health. The economic and nutritional benefits from one of the nation's most important recreational freshwater fisheries are at stake. Mercury levels in walleye, for example, are high enough in many inland lakes and rivers in the Great Lakes region to degrade their quality as a food resource and compromise their reproduction.
Note that this research also demonstrates that mercury controls work. As mercury emissions in the Great Lakes region declined after the implementation of state and federal regulations, so did mercury levels in the environment. Mercury loading to the region, as estimated from lake sediments, has decreased 20 percent from peak levels around 1985. There are those who would argue against the importance of controlling mercury from U.S. sources given the magnitude of international sources, but lake sediments tell us the actual history of mercury inputs. The declines in mercury in lake sediments were concurrent with a 48 percent decrease in U.S. mercury emissions in the Great Lakes region and a 17 percent increase in global emissions. Importantly, mercury concentrations in some fish and fish-eating birds have also declined, illustrating clearly the benefit of controlling U.S. emissions. Mercury concentrations in walleye and largemouth bass are approximately 25 percent lower today than in 1970, when measurements began.
Despite progress in the Great Lakes region, the mercury problem is far from solved. All 50 states still have fish consumption advisories due to mercury, and an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 children born each year in the United States are exposed to mercury levels in utero that are high enough to impair neurological function.
Fortunately, reliable pollution-control technology exists, and the EPA's own analysis shows that the monetized benefits of pollution control to the American public outweigh the costs to industry by up to 13 to 1 (including benefits of reduced particulate matter from power plant emissions). The estimated net benefits for mercury were limited to improvements in IQ, and would have been even higher if other human and environmental health end-points had been considered. The science on the impacts of mercury pollution is clear. The costs of uncontrolled emissions from power plants are too high to be ignored.
The Utility Air Toxics Rule presents a science litmus test to the Obama administration. The findings from the Great Lakes region from more than 170 scholars who worked for three years to produce 35 peer-reviewed papers provide compelling, even overwhelming, science on mercury pollution and its effects on one of the most important freshwater resources in the world. If ever the science on air pollution and its impact on public welfare mattered, now is the time. Will the administration live up to its commitment to heed sound science and safeguard public health and welfare by instituting the mercury emission controls called for in the Utility Air Toxics Rule?
Charles T. Driscoll is university professor of Environmental Systems Engineering at Syracuse University. David C. Evers is executive director and chief scientist at the BioDiversity Research Institute in Gorham, Maine. James G. Wiener is Wisconsin distinguished professor at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse.