In his guest column in the June 21 Outpost (“Montana shouldn’t have to pay for EPA mistake”), Sen. Ed Walker, R-Billings, warned of dire consequences if Montana adopts the Environmental Protection Agency’s nationwide regulations limiting mercury from coal-fired power plants: Our electricity rates will skyrocket, power plants will shut down (they won’t have time to comply), and the reliability of our electric grid will be compromised. Furthermore, he argues that the EPA’s regulations are redundant and will do little to improve our health or the environment.
Sen. Walker does a disservice when he exaggerates and oversimplifies a complex issue. Montanans will likely see little change in their electric rates because of national regulations, nor will they see any power plant closures. The benefits to people and the environment will far outweigh the costs.
Let’s look at what we’re dealing with. Mercury occurs in the earth’s crust and is naturally released into the air by forest fires and volcanoes, but about two-thirds of the mercury in our air comes from human activities, and most of that comes from burning coal.
Airborne mercury eventually ends up in soil, lakes, rivers, and oceans. It’s ingested by microorganisms, and converted to methyl mercury, a potent neurotoxin that concentrates as it moves up the food chain from tiny invertebrates to large fish. When we eat those fish, the methyl mercury binds with proteins in our bodies and moves across the blood-brain barrier and placenta. In adults, it affects balance, coordination, memory, and concentration. But it particularly imperils the brain development of fetuses and can compromise the ability of infants and young children to walk, talk, read, write and learn.
Today, 12 percent of women of child-bearing age in the U.S. have dangerous mercury levels in their blood, and each year over 400,000 infants are born with mercury levels high enough to cause measurable brain damage.
In 1999, U.S. coal-burning emitted about 48 tons of mercury into the air, or just over 2.4 percent of the global man-made emissions. Coal advocates ask why the U.S. should spend millions reducing such a relatively small amount.
However, the toxicity of mercury compounds is extreme. One 70th of a teaspoon of mercury can contaminate a 20-acre lake so the fish are not safe to eat. The Colstrip Steam Electric Station in southeast Montana emitted about 1,490 pounds of mercury in 2009 and was ranked the worst mercury polluter in the Western states.
The EPA’s new regulations are long overdue. Although their implementation will not be cheap, the financial benefits will certainly outweigh the costs. The regulations are expected to prevent up to 11,000 deaths annually and save average Americans $3-$9 in health costs for every dollar spent retrofitting.
And power plants have had plenty of time to comply. Congress charged the EPA with controlling mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants back in 1990. Delays and litigation prevented the regulations from being enacted until now – 22 years later.
Meanwhile in 2006, many states (including Montana) decided to regulate their own mercury emissions. These regulations required most plants to reduce their mercury by 2010. Did enacting these regulations cause Montana’s electrical grid to collapse? Hardly. NorthWestern Energy’s residential supply rates stayed about the same. No power plants closed, and our electricity supply remained stable. The effects of EPA’s regulations will probably be similar.
Only a few old coal-fired power plants (Colstrip units 1 and 2) may need retrofitting to meet the national standard. Since NorthWestern’s portfolio is made up of many sources (coal, gas, wind, and hydro), the retrofit of two units is unlikely to cause big changes. In addition, most of NorthWestern’s electrical supply is purchased under long-term contracts, with fixed rates, which also protects consumers from extreme fluctuations.
Perhaps a more important issue is whether to mine and sell Montana coal to China. Once that coal is burned and the mercury airborne, it can be carried in plumes 20,000 feet high and wafted back to the western U.S. in surprisingly little time (five to 10 days).
So, if you care about the quality of our air and water and the rights and health of our unborn children, you should firmly support the EPA’s national regulations on mercury emissions.