No safe mercury level

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 17, 2011

PowerSouth CEO Gary Smith’s article was well written and done in a way that seeks to make folks comfortable with mercury emissions. Setting the mercury emission issue in the context of childhood and family was frankly brilliant. Either Mr. Smith or PowerSouth’s PR folks or contract PR firm did an excellent job. The letter unfortunately may lead folks to believe that consumption of fish containing mercury is safe – I and my family did it and I’m OK.

The reality is that there is no truly safe level of mercury. It is an extremely dangerous neurotoxin for everyone but it is especially damaging to the developing fetus and to young children. That is why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of tightening mercury emission limits from a number of sources including the electric power industry.

Mr. Smith states that compliance with the new rule will cost utilities $10.9 billion – I don’t really know but I assume that this is an annual cost. If so, it is probably an overstatement of costs as the range of costs that I have seen is $2 to 5 billion per year.

The industry may have a beef with the proposed new rule because the benefits, that dwarf the costs and are estimated to range from $53 billion to $140 billion per year, come mostly from the reduction in small particulate emissions or PM2.5 that the new regulation will achieve. The controls would prevent 6,800 to 17,000 premature deaths, 11,000 nonfatal heart attacks, 5,300 hospitalizations for respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, 850,000 lost work days and 5.1 million days when adults restrict normal activities because of respiratory symptoms caused by PM2.5. Direct benefits from mercury are only about $6 million per year but the overall benefits are by USEPA estimates in the range of 25 to 70 odd times the costs.

Frankly, the regulated industry has almost if not always overestimated the costs and understated the benefits of air pollution controls. For example, the Clean Air Act is estimated to have saved over $59 trillion dollars in health-related costs since it was passed almost 40 years ago. The electric power industry has cried wolf in the past and there is little reason to believe they are not doing the same thing today.

$10.9 billion dollars sounds like a lot of money and it is but the estimated annual cost per household for the new rule is between $5 and $60. Is preventing the health impacts and lost efficiency in the workplace noted earlier worth the cost? In think the answer for sane folks not seeking to continue to externalize their production costs is “you betcha!”

Coal is dirty, dangerous and deadly! We need to more to clean renewable energy sources as quickly as possible. The U.S. has ample wind, solar and geothermal to provide most of our energy needs. If we store energy by making hydrogen and then use the hydrogen to make electricity we could and should with a crash program be largely off fossil fuels within 20 to 30 years. We would have energy independence and very likely full employment. Continued reliance on dirty and depleting fossil fuels will not produce that result.

Michael William Mullen

Choctawhatchee Riverkeeper, Inc.

Banks, AL 36005