Bio prof, alum fight mercury pollution

by Cathy Wu | 1/16/07 6:00am

Biology professor Celia Chen and environmental consultant Kathy Fallon-Lambert '90 contributed to two studies that have been used by Congress to push for tougher environmental restrictions for mercury emission levels. The studies found that several hotspots dot the Northeast coast where elevated mercury concentrations are linked to atmospheric mercury, a toxic chemical entering the air from surrounding coal fire plants.

The studies, funded by the environmental non-profit Hubbard Brook Research Foundation, combine research from different scientists along the Northeast coast. They were published in BioScience magazine this January.

Currently, the Environmental Protection Agency's mercury regulations call for a cap and trade method to be employed by energy plants in regards to atmospheric mercury emission.

Under the rule, the nation as a whole is scheduled to reduce emissions by 70 percent by 2025. Those plants that do not have the resources to install pollution caps can purchase more emission reduction credits from other facilities to meet national standards. The recent studies, using a different model than the ones the EPA employed, show that mercury levels in certain locations are dangerously high.

In addition to the ecological and human harm they pose, high mercury levels could wreak economic havoc in tourist-heavy regions of the Northeast, said Fallon-Lambert, a consultant for the Hubbard Foundation. The studies show that despite the enforcement of restrictions by the EPA in 2005, mercury concentrations have not decreased.

"That hotspot can persist if the local plants persist in emissions," Celia Chen, associate professor and contributor to the two studies, said. "Hotspots are created by local emission because certain systems are sensitive to mercury emissions."

Giving as an example a hotspot in southern New Hampshire, Chen said that when the local source of emission was reduced, the amount of mercury in the local food web also decreased.

"Most of the emissions in that area in southern New Hampshire are from the coal-fire source in that regions," she said. "So it's linking the emission to the biology and saying in fact that if you reduce your emission you can reduce the mercury in the environment."

According to Chen, scientists inside the EPA often bump into difficulties when presenting their studies.

"I know people that have worked in EPA that its an extremely frustrating time to be working," Chen said. Chen also cited an example of an EPA scientist who goes to meetings as private citizen because she's not allowed to represent the EPA.

"I think that [the EPA] aren't as protective as they should be," she said. "I think that's the case with the mercury. The EPA's rule, it's what the President, the administration, endorses."

Legislation is already on the way to reduce emissions. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, pushed a bill in the Senate to establish a nationwide mercury monitoring network. She also reintroduced past legislation that calls for mercury emissions to be reduced by 90 percent without any possibility of trade.

"I have long argued that EPA used faulty science in order to justify an insufficient mercury rule, and these studies prove it," Collins said in a press release posted on her website. "EPA misrepresented the mercury problem based on computer data which had not been peer-reviewed, and then put out a rule which does not account for mercury hotspots and which places children and pregnant women at risk."

Legislative action is also taking place on a state level. According to Fallon-Lambert, 16 states have filed law suits against the EPA.

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