April 9, 2010

Mercury remains in the local Virginia news

And I’m not referring to Johnny Depp’s version of the Mad Hatter in the new Alice in Wonderland movie. The Hatter's erratic behavior refers to a real industrial hazard in Lewis Carroll's England when hat-makers commonly exhibited slurred speech, tremors, irritability, and other neurological symptoms after exposure to the mercury used in shaping the hats.

Society has made great progress in recognizing and controlling industrial hazards since Lewis Carroll's day, but coal plants remain a major source of mercury in our water. Dominion’s York River Power Plant released 98 pounds of mercury in 2009, according to a recent state report. Nearby, Western Oil Refinery released 28 pounds, for a total of 126 pounds of mercury on that side of our peninsula.

So why are more local residents not “mad as a hatter” about the 118 pounds of mercury that Old Dominion Electric Coop estimates their proposed coal-burning power plant will emit each year a short distance from us across the James River? Perhaps if more local residents knew that merely 1/70 teaspoon of mercury in a 25 acre lake makes the fish unsafe to eat, they’d learn more about this project making its way through the permitting process.

Mercury is a cumulative poison that causes kidney and brain damage. Perhaps everyone's just been eating too much sushi. A study released in August 2009 by the U.S. Geological Survey found mercury contamination in every fish it tested from nearly 300 streams across the country, with levels in 27 percent  of the fish high enough to exceed EPA safety limits. Airborne mercuryis nothing to sneeze at either, and it's most harmful within a 60 mile radius of a coal-fired power plant.