Mercury is a highly potent neurotoxin. When ingested by humans, it can cause birth defects and impairment of brain functions.
Scientists on Wednesday released a study that showed severe mercury contamination hotspots in the Northeast and maritime Canada, including the upper Kennebec and Androscoggin river watersheds. The study’s conclusions directly contradict the findings of the Environmental Protection Agency, which has helped its friends in the energy industry by downplaying both the extent and risk of highly toxic mercury contamination in the region. The EPA has used its studies to justify lax regulation of mercury emissions from midwestern power plants. Mainers should be concerned.
Mercury is a naturally occurring element that exists in tiny amounts in the earth’s crust. Its presence becomes a problem, however, when power plants burn coal and mercury is then released into the atmosphere through the plant’s smokestacks. Those emissions are carried by wind and deposited on the Earth, where the mercury eventually makes its way into lakes and streams. The smallest creatures in the water ingest the mercury, the next creatures up on the food chain — fish, for example — eat the smaller creatures and then even larger creatures, such as loons and osprey, eat the fish and the mercury levels get multiplied in a process called “bioaccumulation.” The animals’ health and reproductive abilities can be seriously impaired by the mercury they ingest.
And, of course, humans who eat the fish from mercury-laden waters are at risk as well. That’s why we have fish consumption advisories in Maine, warning pregnant women and young children not to eat certain freshwater fish. Unfortunately, loons and the fish themselves can’t read those signs.
We’re not surprised at the extent of mercury contamination in our state’s waters; earlier studies had hinted that such hotspots existed. And sadly, we’re not surprised at the perfidy of our federal environmental regulators, who have rarely seen an industry they couldn’t help by gutting pollution controls.
Perhaps, though, this study will finally fuel a change in federal policy. U.S. Rep. Tom Allen, D-1st District, has long pushed for legislation to systematically monitor mercury contamination across the country as a way of measuring whether pollution controls are adequate; that legislation will have a stronger chance in the now-Democratic Congress. And Maine Sen. Susan Collins has said she’ll push for stronger regulation of midwestern power plant emissions to curb mercury contamination downwind.
Both efforts are welcome — we’re just sorry that the very regulators charged with protecting our environment and health weren’t the ones to undertake them.