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Report ranks Texas as nation's worst by mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants

By Jim Bardwell
Jan. 29, 2011 at 6 p.m.

A Tatum power plant is the nation's largest emitter of mercury, according to a new report, and it and another coal-fired plant in northeast Texas are among the nation's 10 largest emitters of the toxic element.

The report from Environment Texas, a citizen-funded statewide group, found Dallas-based Luminant's Martin Lake Steam Electric Station and Lignite Mine emits more mercury - 2,660 pounds annually - than any other plant in the nation.

Released as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is set to propose a standard by March to limit mercury and other toxic air pollution from power plants, the report issued last week indicates Texas plants emit more mercury pollution than those in any other state.

Luminant's Monticello Steam Electric Station and Lignite Mine near Mount Pleasant emits 1,828 pounds of mercury every year, the report indicated. That ranks it fifth in the nation.

The Pirkey Power Plant near Hallsville was ranked 21st among the "Top 25 Most Polluting Power Plants" in the United States.

"Powering our homes should not poison Texas kids," said Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas. "Mercury pollution from power plants puts our kids and our environment at risk, and we need the Environmental Protection Agency to force these facilities to clean up."

Luminant officials said they were aware of the 78-page report but were not ready to comment on it last week. "We weren't contacted by the authors of the study and we're still reviewing it due to its size," said Ashley Barrie, Luminant spokeswoman.

The findings are based on the Toxics Release Inventory, an online storehouse of pollution data power companies provide annually to the EPA. The inventory showed Texas is followed in emissions of mercury by Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.

The report claims coal-fired power plants are the largest source of mercury pollution in the United States. Mercury settles out of the air into rivers and lakes, moving into the human food chain through fish and animal. In large doses, it can damage the brain and other vital organs.

"Even very small amounts of mercury can have significant impacts," the report said, "as studies suggest that a gram-sized drop of mercury can contaminate an entire 20-acre lake."

A spokesman for AEP Southwestern Electric Power Co., which owns the Pirkey plant, said it was not surprising Texas plants led the list.

"Typically these environmental reports list mercury emissions by volume and because AEP power plants are some of the largest in the U.S., our emissions tend to be large by volume," said SWEPCO spokesman Scott McCloud. He added that half of the U.S. power industry is fueled by coal.

A global issue

But he said it was also important to remember mercury is a global issue, with U.S. power plants accounting for about 2 percent to 3 percent of global mercury emissions.

"Mercury levels in the U.S. are influenced significantly by global emissions," McCloud said. "Between 40 to 70 percent, of mercury deposition in the U.S. is from global sources outside of the U.S. So making significant reductions in emissions from U.S. power plants will have little impact on overall air depositions of mercury."

He said SWEPCO continues to evaluate technologies to reduce mercury emissions.

The report cites research that found:

Mercury pollution is a widespread health risk. The EPA estimates one in six women of childbearing age has enough mercury in her bloodstream to put her unborn child at risk for health effects of mercury pollution, including learning disabilities, developmental disorders, and lower IQs.

Mercury pollution harms the environment. Fish and animals that consume fish suffer from reproductive failure and mortality as a result of mercury pollution. More U.S. waters are closed to fishing because of mercury contamination than because of any other toxic contamination. The EPA found that the waterways of Angelina River/Sam Rayburn Reservoir, Black Cypress Bayou, Caddo Lake, and Lake Daingerfield are contaminated with mercury pollution.

Power plants in Texas emitted 16,350 pounds of mercury pollution in 2009, more than any other state. Nationwide, coal-fired power plants emitted 138,259 pounds of mercury that year. Power plants in the Top 10 worst-polluting states, including Texas, were responsible for 56 percent of all mercury emitted from power plants.

But coal-fueled power plant owners say they are working to improve the environment.

Cutting emissions

"Luminant is doing more than any other company in the nation to voluntarily cut mercury emissions from our coal-fueled power plants," said Barrie, the company's spokeswoman. "Our voluntary installation of activated carbon injection systems on all of our coal-fueled power plant units demonstrates our commitment to protect air quality and the environment well in advance of state or federal mandates."

She said Luminant had been actively engaged in cutting-edge research of various mercury control technologies and monitoring initiatives at a number of its power plants.

"For almost a decade, Luminant has partnered with the Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, University of Texas at Austin, Electric Power Research Institute and other research institutions on more than 40 projects to evaluate different technologies to control mercury, Barrie said.

Brian Bond, SWEPCO vice president for external affairs and the company's environmental expert, said "Like other coal-fired utilities across the country, AEP and SWEPCO are awaiting EPA's final rule by November 2011 that will establish guidelines for mercury reductions. Once we know these reductions, AEP and SWEPCO can install appropriate technology to reduce emissions. This equipment would most likely have to be installed by 2015 based on the EPA current compliance plan schedule."

SWEPCO officials said their Pirkey Power Plant at Hallsville has a wet scrubber system that removes 40 to 50 percent of the mercury, but the lignite coal burned there has a higher mercury content than the low-sulfur coal powering the Welsh Power Plant near Pittsburg.

Strong standards

Environment Texas has called on the EPA to issue a strong standard that will significantly reduce pollutants from power plants, and specifically cut mercury pollution by more than 90 percent.

The group said that while the EPA is undertaking its rulemaking, Congress and industry lobbyists are working to prevent the agency from doing its job by threatening legislation to block such rules.

"Texas' parents do everything they can to protect their children's health; now it's time for the EPA to do its part," Metzger said. "The Texas Congressional delegation should stand up for Texas' families and support the EPA."



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