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Mercury rising

Heavy reliance on coal is boosting mercury levels. How should the US limit emissions from the power industry?

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John Ament likes to go fishing, but these days he doesn't eat the bass he catches at Caddo Lake, his much-loved family retreat. Too much mercury in them, he says. Texas authorities agree.

That's why they have issued a mercury warning for fish caught in Caddo, the Lone Star State's largest natural lake and one of its most beautiful with ancient-looking cypress trees dripping Spanish moss.

Mr. Ament's lament is being felt nationwide. In 2002 at least 43 states issued mercury warnings for fish covering 12 million acres of lakes and 400,000 miles of rivers. In January, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warned that 1 in 6 women of childbearing age had mercury levels in her blood that could put a fetus's development at risk.

The reason for the rise in mercury contamination, many suspect, is the nation's heavy reliance on coal. Emissions from electric utility plants represent the single largest unregulated industrial source of mercury emissions in the US, according to the EPA. Some 500 power plants pump out 60 percent (45 tons) of the 75 tons of mercury released into the air by all industries that year, according to the EPA's 2001 Toxic Release Inventory.But environmentalists charge that plans to clamp down on the problem have been undermined by the White House, which says that it favors a more flexible market-oriented approach.

When mercury is expelled from smokestacks, and falls to earth as particles or in rain, it sinks into lake and river sediment. Then bacteria and plants absorb methyl mercury into the food chain - with predator fish, loons, osprey, and humans consuming the highest and potentially most harmful concentrations. Even though mercury has been a regulated air toxin for 35 years, it is not currently controlled in power plants.

Last fall a federal advisory committee on power-plant mercury was on the verge of recommending cuts of up to 90 percent in utility mercury emissions and a cap of five tons for the industry by 2008. But the Bush administration sidestepped the task force, proposing an alternative "cap and trade" approach that would reduce mercury emissions 70 percent by 2018.

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