Mercury Blows into Idaho
by Rocky Barker
Oregon cement plant newly revealed as major source of poisonous pollutant
Some of the nation's largest sources of mercury lie just over Idaho's borders, sending the poisonous pollutant into the state on the prevailing winds.
Idaho officials and environmentalists have been pressing Nevada gold mines to reduce mercury emissions that accumulate in fish and can cause brain damage and learning disabilities in babies and young children. On Aug. 3, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality officials revealed the emissions of a huge cement plant 100 miles upwind of Boise.
Ash Grove Cement's plant in Durkee, Ore., southeast of Baker City emits up to 2,153 pounds of mercury annually -- 10 times the amount expected from a typical coal-fired electric power plant like the one Sempra Energy proposed then abandoned near Jerome earlier this year. By comparison, Idaho's top mercury polluter in 2004 was P4 Production's phosphate plant in Caribou County in Southeast Idaho, with 710 pounds. Gov. Jim Risch took a strong stand Wednesday against the coal plant and new mercury sources in Idaho by opting out of a federal mercury pollution trading program. Risch also acknowledged the threat from Nevada and Oregon and gave his support to the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality's growing mercury program.
"We need to take this one step at a time," Risch said. "DEQ will continue to monitor what spill-over we get from other states."
The state's mercury monitoring program discovered in 2005 that mercury levels in the air south of Twin Falls rose 30 to 70 percent higher than normal levels when winds blew from the southwest, where the gold mines are located.
It also found higher than normal mercury levels in Salmon Falls Creek Reservoir near Nevada's border.
The reservoir also is one of the state's nine water bodies where health officials have issued fish-consumption advisories warning women of child-bearing age and children to eat only one fish meal a week because of mercury contamination.
Nevada cuts mercury
Nevada mines in 2002 accounted for 11 percent of all mercury emitted by industry nationwide. Four of Nevada's mines, responsible for 98 percent of the mercury released there, voluntarily reduced mercury emissions -- from more than 15,000 pounds annually in 2002 to 4,000 pounds in 2004 -- under a program in conjunction with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Earlier this year, Nevada made the program mandatory and required all mines that emitted mercury above a certain level to use the maximum available technology for cutting mercury emissions.
Russ Fields, president of the Nevada Mining Association, said Idaho's monitoring results and the Idaho Conservation League's active engagement with Nevada environmental officials and the miners played a "significant role" in putting the program in place.
"It would have gone forward without the Idaho Conservation League," Fields said. "It might not have gone forward as fast."
Idaho's DEQ has air monitors in the field right now that confirm rising mercury levels in the air when winds blow in from Nevada's gold country.
"We continue to see elevated levels of atmospheric mercury in that area and in the precipitation," said Mike DuBois, manager of DEQ's air toxics program.
The monitoring also measured a large cloud of mercury that blew into Idaho from the northwest, DuBois said. It could from be the Ash Grove cement plant or even a natural source such as the Mount St. Helens volcano.
Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, supported the coal plant near Jerome and believes the mercury threat is overblown. Natural sources, even forest fires, are at least as big a contributor, if not larger, than human sources, he said.
"One coal-fired plant pales next to a forest fire that burns 40,000 acres," Anderson said.
Ash Grove is not required to reduce its mercury emissions under current federal law.
The EPA determined that there is no feasible technology for reducing mercury from cement plants.
That leaves Ash Grove with no option except shutting down, which would put 116 people out of work and leave Oregon, Washington and Nevada with 900,000 fewer tons of cement available annually.
"There is currently no available technology for cement plants in the U.S.," said Scott Matter, an Ash Grove spokesman.
But after public comments produced several new ideas, EPA extended its public comment period on a new cement plant mercury rule to Aug. 1.
Even though the level of Ash Grove's mercury emissions was revealed after that date, it will be considered in the final rule, said John Millett, an EPA spokesman in Washington D.C.
"We have not made a final decision yet on how to address mercury from these plants, so its still an open question," he said.
Oregon's DEQ will order Ash Grove to conduct more tests to make its own determination whether mercury limits are feasible and cost-effective, said Nina DeConcini, a DEQ spokeswoman. It won't necessarily limit its regulation to what EPA decides, she said.
"There are a number of states, including Oregon, that want stricter rules for mercury," DeConcini said. Mercury is a global issue
How much mercury drops from the sky and adds to the health threat in a specific location is a complex issue, DuBois said.
Elemental mercury tends to remain in the atmosphere and travel globally before settling back to Earth. In its reactive gas form, mercury drops out of the air quickly onto the immediate area.
Several Nevada mines are testing their mercury emissions to determine how much is elemental and how much is reactive gas, EPA officials said. That could lead to estimates on how much the mines are polluting Idaho.
But no matter how mercury is emitted, it adds to a global problem.
EPA estimates about 5,500 tons of mercury are emitted annually from all sources, and only 158 tons come from U.S. industrial sources.
But U.S. companies, including the gold mines in Nevada, set the standard for the world, said mining association president Fields.
The reductions that Nevada's companies have made in mercury, in part because of Idaho's concerns, will reduce mercury pollution from mining worldwide.
"If a mining engineer knows how to control mercury in Nevada, they'll likely control mercury in a mine in Indonesia," Fields said.
"I think there will be overall improvement of mining worldwide based on the program here in Nevada."
Mercury has long been known to be a deadly poison in high doses. Methylmercury is the organic form that is the most toxic. Children of women exposed to relatively high levels of methylmercury during pregnancy show delayed onset of walking and talking, reduced neurological test scores, and delays and deficits in learning ability, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports.
Eight percent of women of childbearing age nationally have levels of mercury in their blood that exceed the level EPA considers safe, mostly because of fish contamination, the EPA said. Growing evidence also shows that methylmercury exposure can have adverse cardiovascular effects for adults, resulting in elevated blood pressure and incidence of heart attack, EPA officials say.
How are people exposed?
Mercury is released into the atmosphere by many industrial processes, especially coal-fired power plants and mines. Most of the mercury pollution is elemental mercury, which is not as toxic. But it mixes in the atmosphere with other chemicals and is transformed through oxidation and other processes after it is deposited over the land into the more lethal methylmercury.
It then washes into waterways at widely varying rates. In rivers and lakes, it moves up the food chain to concentrate at high levels in the flesh of fish. Some is carried around the world, and some drops out of the atmosphere in rain and snow or in dry form. Scientists are only beginning to understand the deposition process. 'Mad as a hatter'
The "Alice in Wonderland" character got his name, the Mad Hatter, from the phrase "mad as a hatter," popular during the 1830s. Hatters really did go mad. Mercurous nitrate was used in curing felt for hats. Prolonged exposure to the mercury vapors caused hat-makers to develop severe and uncontrollable muscular tremors and twitching limbs, called "hatter's shakes." They also suffered from distorted vision, confused speech and even hallucinations
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