Mercury rising: Plant pollution no fish story

A new report released last week by the U.S. Geological Survey measuring mercury levels in fish is not the first such warning we've had about this. In fact, the report probably understates the seriousness of mercury contamination in America, and certainly in this part of Texas.

According to the report, one of every four fish caught in U.S. rivers, streams and wetlands is contaminated by so much mercury, it is unsafe to eat. That's sort of like playing Russian roulette with a rod and reel. I mean, given four fish, how do you know which three are safe to eat and which one could leave you with brain damage?

USGS researchers found traces of mercury — a heavy metal that causes brain damage and, when eaten by expectant mothers, birth defects and autism — in every fish it tested. In more than a quarter of those fish, the level of mercury contamination exceeded the levels set by the Environmental Protection Agency as being safe. The fish tested were taken from nearly 300 American rivers, streams and wetland areas.

Around here, it's a lot higher than that. The main source of mercury released into the environment comes from burning low-grade lignite to generate electricity. There have been several studies in the last few years that linked burning lignite coal to extremely high concentrations of mercury in Texas' lakes, streams and marshes.

In 2004, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund released its report, "Reel Danger: Mercury pollution and the fish we eat," which found that 57 percent of the fish sampled in Texas contained unsafe levels of mercury and that 83 percent of both predator and bottom feeding fish, like several varieties of catfish and bass, had unsafe levels of mercury.

Last year, a University of Pittsburgh research group found that fish caught downstream of coal fired electric plants have been contaminated by dangerous levels of mercury. These fish had up to 19 times more mercury than storebought, farm-raised fish.

Also last year, the University of Texas Health Science Center found the risk of autism is greater for children living near Texas power plants and that the incidence of autism increases as power plants increase emissions of mercury.

This most recent report warning that our lakes and rivers are contaminated with dangerous levels of mercury really shouldn't surprise us. After all, we share our immediate environment with several coal-fired power plants that, in the past, have individually pumped out more than 180,000 tons of airborne solid waste each year."

The new Sandow plant in Rockdale is permitted to emit 300 pounds of mercury annually but the two lignite plants being built near Franklin in Robertson County will combine to generate nearly 1,600 pounds of mercury annually, once they're on line. The Bremond generating plant is permitted for about 600 pounds annually.

So, we have (or will have) four lignite-burning power plants within about an hour's drive combining to release more than a ton of mercury into the atmosphere each year — and our state government condones it through its permitting process.

And this doesn't even count the Limestone plant up in Jewett — about 70 miles away — that has been called the dirtiest power plant in America. The Limestone plant releases 1,800 pounds of mercury each year, more than any other plant in the country. To our shame, Texas is home to five of the nation's top 10 dirtiest power plants.

I'm not saying that you should never eat fish caught in the Little River, or Lake Sommerville, or Stillhouse Hollow, or Lake Limestone. But, I'd think long and hard before letting my pregnant daughter or granddaughter eat any fish caught in Texas.

A former print journalist, Stone is now a small business and media consultant living in Cameron.

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2009-09-03 digital edition

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