State Set to Boost Rules on Mercury Emissions; but They Won't Do Enough to Regulate Coal-Fired Power Plants, Environmentalists Say

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Byline: MIKE MORRISON

Proposed new rules on mercury emissions exceed federal standards and ultimately will lead to a reduced releases of the toxic heavy metal into the atmosphere.

But those standards that the Georgia Board of Natural Resources will vote on June 27 don't go far enough in regulating coal-fired power plants, some environmental organizations say. The mercury that flies out of smokestacks comes down in Georgia's rivers, streams and lakes, where it is absorbed by fish. Many of those fish wind up sizzling in the frying pans of recreational anglers, spreading the mercury poison to the human population, the environmentalists say.

Satilla Riverkeeper Gordon Rogers says it is ironic that Georgians have the right to fish, but the Department of Natural Resources warns fishermen it is dangerous to eat their catch.

But that's exactly what is taking place, he said. The DNR's Web site and published fishing regulations both chart which fish are safe to eat and how much can be eaten safely.

The Satilla, a slow-flowing South Georgia stream, is sampled at two sites, the Ware County-Brantley County line and at Burnt Fort on the Charlton-Camden line. From samples taken at the first site, the DNR has determined that largemouth bass may be eaten only once a month, and that redbreast and channel catfish may be consumed no more than once a week.

Downstream at Burnt Fork, the statistics worsen. Fish from that stretch of river accumulate more mercury, and largemouth bass, redbreast and flathead catfish should be eaten no more than once a month.

The mercury found in those fish comes from coal-fired power plants, said Jimmy Johnson of the state Environmental Protection Division.

"We've looked at the data and we've concluded mercury emissions do have an impact on mercury in fish within Georgia," Johnson said. "Coal-fired power plants are the last remaining unregulated emitter of mercury. Our understanding is that the main path of mercury to women of child-bearing age is through the consumption of fish."

Mercury poisoning can cause serious health problems, especially for children and pregnant women. According to the EPD, more than 20,000 children are born in Georgia each year with dangerously high levels of mercury in their blood.

"This is an issue that affects each and every Georgian," Ogeechee-Canoochee Riverkeeper Chandra Brown said. "Mercury affects the health and well-being of our most vulnerable resource, our children."

Blackwater river systems such as the Satilla are more efficient processors of mercury in a negative way, Rogers said. They do a better job of converting the raw material that falls from the sky into the toxic form of mercury absorbed by fish, he said.

Blackwater rivers originate in wetlands. …