Natural Resources Board approves major mercury reduction rule

Rule now goes to legislature

MADISON – The state Natural Resources Board today approved a mercury reduction rule that will accomplish Governor Doyle’s goal to reduce the amount of mercury released to the environment by 90 percent.
“This rule is a major step forward in improving Wisconsin’s air quality,” said DNR Secretary Matt Frank. “It will dramatically reduce mercury deposition into Wisconsin’s lakes, benefiting our fish and wildlife and human health.”
Frank added that the rule will also significantly reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions, lowering ozone and particulate matter levels leading to major improvements in air quality beyond those already achieved.
Complete text of the rule and a report on mercury-related human health risks can be found at
The rule targets mercury emissions from utilities. Mercury is a toxic byproduct of burning coal to generate electricity. Mercury is released from smokestacks and falls into surface waters where it enters the food chain and concentrates in fish and other wildlife.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, roughly 437,000 Wisconsin men and women are exposed to hazardous levels of mercury by eating fish. All inland waters in Wisconsin have fish consumption advice on how many meals of certain fish species humans can safely eat to keep their mercury exposure at or below acceptable risk levels.
In addition to overall exposure to mercury in the population, certain population groups are especially vulnerable say state health officials. Women of childbearing age, infants and children are at greatest risk from ingesting mercury. A study of Wisconsin women shows about 6 percent of women of childbearing age had elevated mercury levels.
Flexibility built in
A key feature of the rule passed by the board is a pair of options for meeting the 90 percent reduction requirement.
Under the first option, which targets only mercury, coal burning electrical generating units have until 2015 to meet the 90 percent reduction target.
Option two, called the “multipollutant option”, attacks mercury, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, the three pollutants most responsible for smog, particulate pollution and fish consumption advisories.
Under the multipollutant approach and in combination with previously enacted air pollution rules, the largest coal burning utilities would, by 2015, achieve both an 85 percent reduction in sulfur dioxide and a 50 percent reduction in nitrogen oxides beyond current regulations. Mercury reduction targets would be 70 percent reduction by the 2015 date, 80 percent by 2018 and 90 percent by 2021.
In total, the multipollutant option would stop release to the environment of 2,634 pounds of mercury, 97,000 tons of sulfur dioxide and 66,000 tons of nitrogen oxide compared to 2005 levels.
These reductions are in addition to a previously announced voluntary commitment by ERCO, a Wisconsin Rapids area chemical manufacturer, to eliminate mercury from its processes thereby removing the largest single source of mercury released to the environment of some 1,100 pounds. Additional commitments by a number of communities to reduce or remove mercury wherever found in the community through collection of mercury containing thermometers, thermostats, lighting and electrical switches will also contribute to the effort, according to officials.
Human health a driving force
The accompanying human health risk assessment report “Mercury Emissions from Coal-fired Power Plants, Public Health and Welfare Finding” presented to the board before it considered the new rule lays out in detail existing scientific evidence of potential harm mercury can have on human health. “This finding provides a thorough and comprehensive reviews of scientific evidence on the toxic effects of mercury in the environment and human health,” said DNR Air and Waste Division Administrator Al Shea. “It firmly and undeniably supports the critical need to reduce mercury emissions from Wisconsin’s largest remaining sources of mercury, coal-fired electric generating plants.”
An EPA health assessment estimates that the multipollutant approach will save more than 30 lives and $230 million in related health care costs in Wisconsin each year. Expected annual costs for these health benefits are roughly an additional $5 to $12 for an average household
Wisconsin citizens are already being exposed to higher than healthy levels of mercury. A 2004 study of mercury concentrations in hair of Wisconsin residents showed that 29 percent of men and 13 percent of women had mercury levels above the Wisconsin and national guideline value of 1 part per million. The US EPA has determined that hair concentration above 1ppm are reason for concern over adverse effects.
Health problems associated with mercury include problems with memory, attention, language, vision and motor functions.
The assessment report authors cite evidence that there is a positive relationship between mercury emissions and mercury contamination and that citizens can expect a measurable decrease in mercury deposition following a reduction in emissions in a year or less. They caution however, that it will likely take much longer before fish consumption advice changes due to the amount of mercury already in lake and river sediments.
Following Natural Resources Board approval, the rule moves over to the legislature where it may pass or environmental committee chairs may call for additional public hearings or request further changes to the rule requirements.