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EPA Ignoring Evidence on Risk of Mercury Emissions from Power Plants

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The US Environmental Protection Agency and various activist groups and newspapers repeatedly insist that mercury emissions from US power plants pose a significant risk to American citizens, especially children and pregnant women. Some here in Virginia have even written in our newspapers claiming that tuna fish is unsafe to eat and should be avoided.

There is not a shred of honest, relevant, reproducible scientific evidence to support these assertions. There is, however, a significant and growing risk to our affordable electricity and basic freedoms from this and other EPA power grabs.

According to government, university and independent studies, America’s coal-burning power plants emit some 41-48 tons of mercury per year. However, US forest fires emit at least 44 tons per year (tpy); cremation of human remains 26 tpy; Chinese power plants 400 tpy; and worldwide volcanoes, subsea vents and geysers at least 9,000-10,000 additional tons per year!

All these emissions enter the global atmospheric system and become part of the US air mass. Thus, US power plants account for less than 0.5 percent of all the mercury in the air Americans breathe. Even eliminating every milligram of this mercury will do nothing about the other 99.5 percent. Moreover, a 17-year Seychelles Islands evaluation of mercury risk to babies and children found “no measurable cognitive or behavioral effects” in children who eat multiple servings of ocean fish every week. Similarly, the Centers for Disease Control concluded that blood mercury levels for US women and children decreased steadily 1999-2008 and are already well below even EPA’s ultra-safe levels.

The World Health Organization and US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry reviewed these findings in setting mercury standards that are 2-3 times less restrictive than EPA’s. EPA ignored all these facts, however. Its claims that mercury is dangerous are based on one study of Faroe Islands women and children, who eat few fruits and vegetables, but feast on pilot whale meat and blubber that is high in mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). The study is clearly irrelevant to Americans.

EPA also ignores the fact that 50+ variables control the natural processes that convert mercury to more dangerous methyl mercury. Those variables are beyond anyone’s ability to control and are largely counterbalanced by selenium in fish and people. Selenium makes mercury and methyl mercury less available biologically, by bonding with those molecules.

In short, there is no basis whatsoever for EPA’s claims that removing mercury from power plant emission streams will “save 17,000 lives” or provide any other measurable benefits. “Creating jobs” by complying with its rules would be like vandals “creating jobs” by breaking windows.

EPA’s actions will drive up the price of coal-based electricity – 44 percent of Virginia’s total electrical supply – while doing nothing to reduce exaggerated mercury threats. And if EPA succeeds in scaring people away from eating tuna and other fish, it will actually worsen people’s health. That would be a serious breach of ethics and social responsibility.

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