State takes aim at mercury pollution

Could the construction of power plants in Shanghai make it less safe to eat fish caught in the Everglades?

A plan to limit mercury pollution in Florida's rivers, lakes and coastal waters faces a significant impediment: The sources of mercury are global, stretching from the power plants, cement plants and automobile exhaust pipes of North America to the coal-fired power plants being built in China. And the rapidly expanding economies of Asia, far beyond the reach of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, contribute the largest share.

The department has begun a series of meetings to establish the maximum acceptable level of mercury for the state's waterways, where high concentrations of the silvery metal have led to advisories to limit consumption of some fish species, particularly in South Florida. But while the impact is local, state officials say, the sources are not.

"It really is a national and a global issue," said Trina Vielhauer, chief of the department's Air Regulation Bureau. "We certainly are looking at Florida sources, and we're expecting folks to do what they can. But global and national sources are important."

Not everyone agrees. David Guest, managing attorney for the Tallahassee office of Earthjustice, which sues on behalf of environmental groups, said the state's attempt to blame the bulk of the problem on other countries was ridiculous and allowed state regulators to avoid imposing tighter controls on the Florida power plants responsible for much of the mercury.

"It makes it looks like you're doing something when you're really not," he said. "This is not real. This is not a regulatory program aimed at mercury reduction, even though there are mercury advisories around the state and it's a serious problem, especially in the Everglades."

No one disputes that mercury is one of Florida's most persistent and dangerous pollutants, capable of causing neurological problems, memory loss, deafness, blindness, mental retardation and personality disorders. It presents the greatest danger to children, pregnant women and women who plan to become pregnant because it can damage the nervous system of the developing child. From 2005 to 2010 there have been 89 confirmed cases of mercury poisoning in Florida, with the vast majority thought to be linked to eating fish.

Warnings are in place throughout the state, with 12,994 square miles of marine and fresh water bodies classified as impaired for mercury, along with 2,903 miles of rivers, streams and canals. Unsafe mercury levels are particularly widespread in South Florida, where they cover most of the Everglades, as well as various streams and lakes.

Of all the mercury falling on the United States, 87 percent comes from outside the country, with two thirds of the worldwide total coming from Asia, said Jan Mandrup-Poulsen, administrator of the watershed protection section of the department. And there are natural sources, such as volcanoes and forest fires.

"If we were to look at all the mercury sources in Florida and turn them all off, we wouldn't solve the mercury problem in Florida," he said.

DEP officials insist the setting of mercury limits will not be an exercise in futility. Several other states are setting mercury limits, and they say these could be used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to set limits on emissions from power plants, cement kilns and other mercury sources around the United States. And down the road, the United States could use the limits as the basis for international treaties limiting mercury emissions, just as international agreements have limited emissions of chemicals that degrade the ozone layer.

We don't have any authority outside Florida," Vielhauer said. "But we have been working with EPA, which does have influence on what happens in the rest of the country."

State officials say mercury from Florida sources has declined sharply, with major drops posted by power plants, trash-burning facilities and other sources.

There are several reasons for South Florida's pervasive mercury problem, state officials said. The region's frequent lightning storms claw mercury from the air to the ground. Its power plants and heavy traffic contribute to the mercury problem. And the vast wetlands of the Everglades are good at transforming mercury arriving from the air into an organic form called methylmercury that can be absorbed by organisms at the bottom of the food chain.

The state plans to submit its proposed mercury limits in September to the Environmental Protection Agency for approval. After that, the state will draw up a plan for implementing the limits.

dfleshler@tribune.com , 954-356-4535


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