Friday, January 05, 2007

Good news from the Midwest

Perhaps you remember the brouhaha back in 2005 over new mercury pollution rules. Atmospheric mercury is a byproduct of coal-fired power plants. It's also a neurotoxin that causes brain damage (as well as madness among hatters) and accumulates in songbirds, fish, and unborn fetuses.

You can imagine the problems this caused for the current administration: would it protect its important unborn babies constituency, or help out its buddies in the mine-and-burn industries? As it turned out, the unborn babies lost out (they don't pay admission at fundraising dinners, after all) and the EPA weakened previous rules so that mercury pollution wouldn't be regulated until 2010. Until then, they probably expect us to practice our abstinence.

We here in the northeast probably aren't as important a constituency as the unborn babies, but there are more of us, and due to prevailing wind and weather patterns, a lot of the nation's mercury ends up here. This map from the NRDC web site shows the main sources of atmospheric mercury in the USA (click the link for an interactive map that identifies sources by state. Maine has six, most of them paper mills). The national map shows a clear cluster of coal and chemical plants in the Midwest, especially in the Ohio River Valley, right upwind from the nation's most populous region. There's another cluster around the city of Chicago, which gets most of its electicity from coal-fired plants run by Midwest Generation.

Midwest Generation produces the most mercury pollution in the state, but here's the good news: after negotiations with Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, the utility has agreed to cut emissions more quickly and more deeply than required by the federal law. Instead of cutting emissions by 70% by the year 2018, Illinois power plants will have to cut emissions by 90% by the year 2015. The utility has also agreed to cut other pollutants, and speculates that some older coal plants may shut down entirely rather than install new equipment.

Mercury pollution will still persist for a long time in the bodies of the animals and people that absorb it, and globally, the problem will get worse with additional coal generation in China. But it's nice to know that utilities in Illinois will soon be sending fewer neurotoxins down the jet stream.

From the Chicago Tribune: Utility to cut coal emissions


Anonymous said...

This information is all well and good but nothing has been said about when the construction will begin. All we hear is that it is planned.

C Neal said...

It's true- for the time being, all we have are promises. Midwest Generation says that they'll have mercury controls up and running in the summer of 2008 for two Chicago-area plants, and the year following for plants elsewhere in the state (click the Tribune article link for more details).

Still, I don't expect that they'll reneg. It would be a PR disaster, for one thing, for the utility and for Daley's Chicago. Additionally, this early adoption of mercury pollution controls will put them ahead when the federal cap-and-trade scheme goes into effect later on. When that happens (and it may happen sooner, with a new regime in the Capitol) Midwest Generation stands to make bank by selling pollution credits elsewhere.