EPA Mercury Ruling Good For Air, Bad for Water?

Environmental groups express concern that scrubbed mercury could end up in ground water.

Published: 21-Dec-2000

WASHINGTON, DC--Today's long-awaited announcement by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that it will develop regulations controlling the release of toxic mercury and other poisons into the air from coal fired power plants leaves a huge pollution loophole that could threaten drinking water supplies, according to the Citizens Coal Council, Hoosier Environmental Council and Clean Air Task Force.

While applauding the agency's decision to regulate toxic air pollution from these dirty sources, the groups pointed out that this new decision could threaten human health and risk drinking water supplies if as a result the industry scrubs toxics from their air emissions only to dump the toxic-laden scrubber residue into the ground and water.

"Cleaning up the environment by regulating air pollution but not power plant wastes is like trying to blow up a balloon that has a hole in it," stated Carolyn Johnson, Staff Director of the Citizens Coal Council, which has sued EPA for its failure to regulate the hazardous power plant wastes. "The toxins are now to be taken out of the air but EPA allows them to be dumped into unlined lagoons and landfills. Poisoned water and land ­ and damaged fish and plant life ­ are no more acceptable than toxic air pollution. EPA must close this pollution loophole," she said.

Brian Wright of the Hoosier Environmental Council, another plaintiff in the EPA power plant case, agreed. "It is an outrage that no federal rules govern the disposal of these power plant wastes. In many states, disposal of household waste into landfills is better regulated than this toxic waste. Yet electric power plants produce over 100 million tons of this waste each year and most is dumped in waste lagoons, landfills or coal strip mines with little or no environmental safeguards in place."

Utility and manufacturing companies burn about 1 billion tons of coal in power plants each year to make electricity. The pollutants in the wastes left behind ­ many of which have been shown to cause cancer -- can and often do enter the environment either through dust, leaching into groundwater or running off into streams and lakes. They contaminate drinking water supplies and accumulate in crops, livestock and wildlife. People living nearby can be exposed by drinking the water, breathing the dust or, especially in the case of children, coming in contact with the soil. Animal mutations have also been identified in areas contaminated by power plant wastes. Earlier this year, EPA refused to regulate these wastes as hazardous despite clear scientific evidence that they risk human health and pollute drinking water.

"This isn't the first time the EPA regulations to clean up the air failed to protect the water and land," said Armond Cohen of the Clean Air Task Force. "In parts of the nation, drinking water has been destroyed after the EPA approved MTBE as a gasoline additive to reduce air pollution from cars, despite clear evidence of MTBE's toxicity.

"When the Agency refused to declare power plant waste hazardous earlier this year, it promised to review that designation. We call on EPA to deliver on its promise and protect communities and the environment from both air and solid waste pollution. Otherwise, if the Agency refuses to learn from history, we stand on the verge of repeating it," concluded Cohen.

Founded in 1989, the Citizens Coal Council is a national federation of 53 grass roots citizen groups and individual members. It works for social and environmental justice in communities impacted by the damage caused by the mining and burning of coal. CCC and its members strive to protect people, homes, communities and the environment from the damage caused by coal mining; restore law and order by enforcing the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act; and help each other win our issues.

Hoosier Environmental Council (HEC) is a grassroots organization working to restore and protect Indiana's environment through education, advocacy, and citizen empowerment. HEC, which was formed in 1983, tracks the damage resulting from power plant pollution both within Illinois and nationwide.

The Clean Air Task Force, based in Boston, Massachusetts, was founded in 1996 with the mission of reducing U.S. power plant air emissions. CATF's principal strategy is to work with citizens and local, state, and national environmental and public health organizations to convince policymakers and companies to require that power plants meet modern pollution standards. Attorneys for CATF are representing the plaintiffs in the power plant waste disposal matter.

For more information, contact:
Jeanne Clark
Clean Air Task Force

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