Coal, Fish, and Connecticut’s Health: A CEQ Update on Mercury Pollution

December 29, 2011

     The federal Environmental Protection Agency’s December 2011 announcement that it would regulate the mercury that spews from power plants is very good news for Connecticut.

     In 1999, the state Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) published Eat, Drink, Be Wary? which highlighted the need to control mercury in air pollution. The reason – then as now – is chemically complex but logically simple: the mercury in the air falls to the ground and washes into our waterways where bacteria convert mercury molecules to methylmercury, a very toxic chemical. Fish accumulate the methylmercury, and Connecticut residents are advised (though most people don’t know it) by state agencies to limit the amount of locally-caught fish they eat. Children and pregnant women are especially warned.

     “It has always struck me as disturbing that a child in Connecticut can catch a fish, even in a remote pond in the woods miles from any industry, and have to have his or her parents check with state guidelines to see if it is okay to eat,” commented CEQ Chair Barbara Wagner.

     In the 1990s, trash-burning power plants and medical waste incinerators were significant sources of mercury in our air and in our fish. However, as noted in the 1999 CEQ report, the amount of mercury in consumer and medical products already was plummeting, leaving coal-burning power plants to our west as the pollution sources most in need of controls.

     The notable reduction in mercury emissions from trash and medical-waste incinerators (96% and 98%, respectively) is one of the under-reported success stories of the past two decades. During those years, however, antiquated coal-fired power plants were sending mercury our way by the ton.

     Anticipating the reduction in mercury in waste, and thus Connecticut’s local mercury emissions, the CEQ said in 1999, “Connecticut must develop and implement an aggressive legal and Congressional strategy to force reductions in mercury emissions in states to our west, particularly the major coal-burning states.” In December 2011, the federal EPA announced new regulations that will greatly restrict the amount of mercury that power plants may emit.

    “Though long overdue, that task is now done!” Wagner said. “Congratulations are due the citizen activists and officials who made it possible.”

     “It will be many years before you and I can catch a stringer of bass or bluegills and eat them with abandon,” concluded Wagner, “but without the new rules on power plants, that day would never come.”

For more information about the CEQ’s reports on mercury, contact:

Karl J. Wagener

Executive Director

Council on Environmental Quality