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Posts Tagged ‘Mercury in Fish’

The EPA vs. Oklahoma Power Companies

Sat ,21/05/2011

The EPA has been charged with reducing the pollutants released into the environment, but they are meeting opposition from power companies, politicians, and people who want cheap energy, though other people’s health and the environment may suffer the consequences . The EPA is accepting comments on the issue through May 23, 2011.  (1)

The Environmental Protection Agency is seeking a 95 percent reduction in emissions at three of Oklahoma’s coal-fired power plants owned by OG&E and AEP. (2) This has brought howls from the utility companies and from Oklahoma’s politicians. Utility companies claim that installing scrubbers or converting to natural gas will cost them billions of dollars and drive the rates for electricity up by 10 to 12%. The utility companies have defined the costs for the plant conversions or upgrades in the worst possible terms, without considering the long-term savings of conversion to natural gas or the impact on people’s health.

EPA.  Stopping the EPA has been put forth as a Conservative and a Republican cause, but it really is neither. President Richard Nixon created the EPA to protect the environment as the United States developed industrially. The Clean Air Act was passed not only to reduce smog in our cities, but to ensure that the air was kept pure and clean in our national parks and wilderness areas. Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA has the right to limit sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, organic compounds, and particulates to ensure the quality of the air in our region. Limiting regional haze would have the added benefit of improving the health of people, wildlife, and plants in the region. Sulfur and nitrogen oxides are known to damage plants and those, along with small particulates, cause respiratory problems in people. Also, the particulates emitted contain mercury, arsenic, lead, cadmium, chromium, dioxins, and radioactive isotopes, which are all health hazards.

Regional problem. The emissions from Oklahoma plants do not remain in Oklahoma, and some of the haze in Oklahoma likely comes from surrounding states, particularly Texas, which has a large number of unregulated power plants. Emissions from a source may remain in the air for many weeks and travel for hundreds of miles. Although each state in the region might wish to address its own air pollution problems, it is a regional problem and must be addressed as such. Some of the states in the region are regulatory averse, and may lack the political will to act in the matter. For instance, a fly ash disposal plant at Bokoshe Oklahoma was allowed to operate for seven years while it violated Oklahoma statutes and apparently caused health problems and possibly deaths among Bokoshe residents.

Cost. The main objection to limiting emissions at the power plants is the cost. However, the power plants have operated for years without paying the true cost of energy production, which should include the cost of limiting their air pollution. It also appears that the companies have overstated the costs by as much as two or three times over the EPA estimates.  AEP reported $1.2 billion in profit last year and OG&E $292 million, so they can apparently afford to address the problem without passing all the costs to  customers.

Timetable. Three years would be a reasonable time for the power plants to come into compliance. It has been known for several decades that the emissions are damaging to the environment and health, yet the companies did not act. Also, the EPA had previously informed the companies that they were out of compliance, yet they have failed to come up with a satisfactory plan. They should have made a move toward compliance long ago, and further stalling should not be allowed.

Alternate plan. The alternate plan of converting the power plants to natural gas is certainly an acceptable plan. Methane produces about 2 1/2 times as much energy per unit of carbon dioxide as coal. And, switching to methane would also alleviate the problem of properly disposing of fly ash, bottom ash, and scrubber sludge. Those, and carbon emissions will necessarily be regulated in the future. Addressing the haze, the solid and liquid waste, and the carbon emissions piecemeal will certainly be less effective and more costly in the long run. If the companies should choose to convert the plants to methane, the added benefits would justify an increase in the timetable of up to five years.

(1) Comments may be submitted to r6air_okhaze@epa.gov or at http://act.credoaction.com/campaign/oklahoma_coal_pollution/?r=7901&id=21282-3213732-Kunk_Zx

(2) http://jcmooreonline.com/2011/03/17/the-problem-with-coal-and-politicians/

(c) 2011 J.C. Moore

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The Problem with Coal and Politicians

Thu ,17/03/2011

The EPA has been charged with reducing the pollutants released into the environment, but they are meeting opposition from power companies, politicians, and people who want cheap energy, though other people  and the environment may suffer the consequences.

The Environmental Protection Agency is seeking a 95 percent reduction in emissions at three of Oklahoma’s coal-fired power plants. This has brought howls from the utility companies and from Oklahoma’s politicians. Utility companies claim that installing scrubbers or converting to natural gas will cost them billions of dollars and drive the rates for electricity up by 10 to 12%. The utility companies have defined the costs for the plant conversions or upgrades in the worst possible terms, without considering the long-term savings.  Conversion to natural gas would eliminate the problem of  coal combustion products such as acidic gases, mercury vapor, fly ash, and bottom ash. Although coal is cheaper than other fuels, it delivers less energy per unit of CO2 produced. Coal  produces 314 kJ/mole while natural gas produces 890 kJ/mole, almost 3 times that of coal. Considering Oklahoma’s abundant supplies of natural gas, it would make sense for Oklahoma to begin switching power plants to natural gas.

The power companies and the politicians have tried to define the problem as the cost of the  “elimination of haze”, as if there were no other environmental damage done by burning coal. That is because the elimination of haze under the Clean Air Act is all the EPA is presently empowered to do. Coal is 65 to 95 % carbon. What about the rest? Coal contains small amounts of mercury, chromium, lead, cadmium, arsenic, sulfur, particulates, and radioactive isotopes. Man burns 6 billion tons of coal each year, releasing millions of tons of pollutants into the air and leaving several hundred million tons behind in the coal ash. Some pollutants eventually find their way into the water, the food chain, and into us. Oklahoma has adopted limits on fish consumption because of high levels of mercury. For comparison, mercury is 100 times as toxic as cyanide, arsenic is 20 times as toxic, and chromium(VI) is 4 times as toxic. These three are also are carcinogenic and accumulate in tissue. Even exposure below the allowed levels increases the chance of cancer over time. The small town of Bokoshe, Oklahoma is located near an unregulated fly ash disposal site. The incidence of cancer among the residents of the town is extraordinarily high, though the power company claims there is no link between that and their fly ash.

The sulfur and nitrogen oxides released by coal combustion harm plants and produce acid rain. A recent article headlined “Pecan growers say coal-fired plant killing trees” described the plight of orchards downwind from a power plant with inadequate pollution controls. One farmer said his pecan crop dropped over the years from 200,000 to 8,000 pounds. The combustion of coal  also releases 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air each year. Because  CO2 in 3water is an acidic, the oceans have become over 20% more acidic in the last century. That has led to the destruction of coral reefs and endangered crustaceans and the phytoplankton that convert CO2 to oxygen. Without phytoplankton, life in the oceans would be impossible. The concentration of CO2 in the air has increased 38% as well.  As a potent greenhouse gas, it is causing the Earth to warm, glaciers and polar ice to melt, and the climate to change in ways we will not always like. The Supreme Court, in Massachusetts v. EPA, ordered the EPA to make a determination as to whether carbon dioxide is a pollutant. The EPA has found, based on the best scientific evidence, that CO2 is an endangerment to public health and has moved forward to regulate it.

Oklahoma’s politicians, such as Sen. Jim Inhofe and  Congressman Dan Boren, are working on a solution- for the power companies benefit. They want to strip the  EPA of  its power to regulate pollution.  They also claim it is a states rights issue, and that the EPA has no business regulating Oklahoma industries. However, the pollution generated by Oklahoma’s power plants does not stay within its borders, nor is all the pollution in Oklahoma from Oklahoma sources. Much of it blows up from Texas, the state with the highest number of power plants out of compliance. Acidic gases released by coal combustion, and even mercury vapor, can travel for thousands of miles before being brought to Earth by precipitation, and much of the CO2 will stay in the air for centuries. Regulation of carbon emissions needs to be done on a national and even international level. It is a bad idea to focus on short term economic costs while ignoring the environmental costs, such as polluting the Earth and letting rural Oklahoma become a dumping ground for the power companies’ waste.

(C) 2011 J.C. Moore

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Should the EPA Limit Carbon Emissions?

Wed ,29/12/2010

The U.S. Republican leaders are blocking climate legislation, leaving the EPA in the position of having to regulate carbon emissions. Many Republicans in Congress are unhappy with the EPA and are now claiming the EPA regulation of CO2 is a “power grab”.

Progress has been limited at the climate meetings in Copenhagen and in Cancun because the U.S. has not acted to restrict its carbon emissions. The U.S. is second to China  in emissions but emits six times as much CO2 on a per capita basis. If the U.S. is not willing to reduce its emissions, why should other countries?  The U.S. came very close to passing cap-an-trade but it failed when John McCain (R Az) backed out of the deal because of a challenge from a far right candidate in the last election. Reducing CO2 emissions has been cast as a liberal issue and many conservatives oppose it for that reason. The wins by Republicans in the last election almost insure that action on a responsible policy will be delayed by at least two years. That is a shame as many Republicans in the past have been strong supporters of the environmental issues.

The Republican leadership adopted opposition to environmental regulations as a campaign strategy. They sent out propaganda based on slick reports produced by conservative think tanks, rather than science, and they inflated the cost of environmental legislation by a factor of twenty – while not mentioning any of the benefits. The propaganda has been passed along to voters in town hall meeting and press releases. The EPA has used science as a basis for its decisions and has moved to limit CO2 emissions as an air pollutant under existing regulations in the Clean Air Act. This has infuriated many Republicans anfd they have challenged the EPA’s right to do, calling it a “power grab”.

My Congressman,  Frank Lucas (R-OK), has spoken disparagingly of environmental regulations in his town hall meetings and in opinion pieces he has sent to the states major newspapers. He also writes a column that goes to many small town newspapers called “Frankly Speaking”. In his column, he has  labelled the EPA’s actions to limit carbon emissions as  “the EPA power grab” . That is hardly the case. The Supreme Court, in Massachusetts v. EPA, found the Environmental Protection Agency could make a determination as to whether carbon dioxide is a pollutant. The EPA has found, based on the best scientific evidence, that CO2 is an endangerment to public health and has moved forward to regulate it.

If Congress had acted to develop a sound energy policy and to curb pollution, the  EPA would not be forced to act in the matter. Regulations passed to limit carbon emissions would fall mainly on the coal industry and would favor a shift in the short term to petroleum and natural gas, both abundant in Oklahoma. Many from the petroleum and gas industries originally supported the cap-and -trade bill. However, all the OK Republican Congressmen sat out the process and let the Democrats from coal producing states load up the cap-and-trade bill with perks for coal producing states. Some of  Oklahoma’s industrial leaders see that limiting carbon emissions could be favorable to the Oklahoma economy, but apparently, the elected representatives have not caught on yet.

And, it is not just about the CO2 or climate change. Along with the 30 billion tons of CO2 we put into the air annually are large amounts of mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, particulates, and radioactive isotopes of radon. Those end up in the air, the water, and the food chain. We are now finding mercury in fish and some places, even in Oklahoma, have limits on consumption. The oceans are now 20% more acidic and economically important fisheries are threatened. Whether we cap pollution, tax it, or strictly regulate it – something must be done and soon. The EPA regulation is a stop gap meaure and the U.S. Congress needs to stop the politics and pass a sound energy policy and meaningful environmental regulations.

(C) 2010 J.C. Moore

Would George Will Rather Have Mercury in His Fish?

Fri ,21/08/2009

George Will, in his article “Perils of a Bright Idea” (4/2/09),  criticized the use of compact florescent light( CFL)  bulbs because they contain mercury. He has apparently not thought this through.  Would he rather have mercury in his light bulbs or in his fish?

 At a public forum, Stuart Jolly, a lobbyist for Americans for Prosperity said, “ if you break a CFL, mercury will spill out”.  Being curious, I went right home and broke one to see.  I could not find the mercury so I looked up the amount. It is about 4 milligrams per light bulb – an amount less than the size of the period at the end of this sentence.  

 Much of our electricity is produced by coal-fired power plants. Coal contains a trace amount of mercury- but considering that we burn 7 billion tons of coal each year –  50 tons of mercury is emitted into the air each year. The mercury is carried to the ground by rain and much of it ends up in our lakes and streams where it enters the food chain.  Some of it eventually ends up in game fish – even in areas that have no natural mercury sources. If you eat fish every Friday, by the year’s end, you’ll have eaten about four times as much mercury as there is in one CFL bulb.

 CFL’s are about four times as efficient as regular bulbs and last about 10 times as long. I cannot think of a company, school, or public building that does not use fluorescent light bulbs to save energy and avoid maintenance costs. CFL’s for home use are the same technology. Using CFL’s will actually cut the amount of mercury entering the environment by reducing the amount of coal burned.

 The mercury in fish should remind us that there are other concerns besides global warming in the debate on energy policy. We have large coal reserves but burning coal  releases sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, mercury, and radioactive isotopes of uranium and thorium that all end up in the air or the food chain. Whether you believe the Earth is getting warmer or not, you must agree that eating and breathing these are a bad idea.