How Much Have We Lost?

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Airborne Mercury & Mt. Vernon's Fish

Pollution control on power plants has come a long way in the last 30 years. 

I've spent my summers in the Adirondack Park in upstate New York since I was born.  We stay at a house on a large nine mile lake called Schroon Lake.  I've hiked over twenty-nine of the Adirondack's High Peaks and dozens of smaller mountains.  When I was younger, the tops of mountains and all of the trees would be dying.  Many ponds had no fish because if acidification. 

In the 1980's, the steel industry and utilities were targeted for sulfur dioxide emissions. They were causing acid rain.  The government imposed new standards and industry put pollution controls in place.  Today, acid rain is an afterthought, the moutain tops are recovering and ecosystems are replenishing.

However, other pollution problems have become apparent. 

Last year, I thought I'd introduce my kids to fishing since I did a lot of that when I was younger.  I checked the water quality reports for our lake and it reported high concentrations of mercury in the fish.  I thought this was strange since there is zero industry anywhere near this lake.  It's entire watershed is basically woods and mountains.

I looked into it a bit and discovered that the problem is airborne mercury.  It concentrates in fish.  The birds eat the fish and then it especially concentrates in the birds.  This all took me back to my read of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson when I was in college and her chapters on DDT which was killing bald eagles.

Today, someone sent me this piece about how mercury is the biggest chemical threat to the Adirondack loon.  If you have never seen or heard a loon, you need to.  They are absolutely striking birds.  No bird has similar markings.  Their eyes are bright red.  Their call sends chills up your spine.  They are very large and can dive underwater for over a minute.  It turns out that mercury from power plants is limiting their recovery.  A recent story on North Country NPR likens them to a canary in the coal mine.

If it's affecting birds, it also has to be affecting people.  Mercury isn't too bad - it only causes brain, kidney and lung damage and sensory impairment (blindness, deafness, speech impairment), hair loss, reduced IQ, etc.   

So you ask, what does this have to do with Virginia?

Mercury pollution was studied in Virginia from 2004-2008 resulting in the Virginia Mercury Study. Fifty-four percent of Virginia mercury pollution is from other states. Fifteen percent comes from electrical generation in Virginia. My summer haunting ground, the Adirondacks gets it worse due to power plants upwind in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and southern Canada. 

The 44th District borders the top bass fishery on the East Coast - The Potomac River.  If you want to find out how clean it is go to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality's interactive map for information on fish consumption. I've posted a screen shot at the right (hint: red does not equal all clear).  Basically, airborne PCB's are a problem along with other things.

Many anglers eat the fish they catch. While most of my constituents don't fish, I think they would be shocked to see the number of my constituents that are actually out of the shores of the Potomac fishing during the day. You can't see them from the George Washington Parkway, but you can from a boat. The 44th District's Asian and Hispanic communities get a lot of their protein from fish (just ask the Snakeheads). 

Based on my recent tours of new power plants, I have seen that the technology exists to get this under control and that power companies are moving to do something about it.  I just hope its fast enough.

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