Monday, January 28, 2008

Cross Border Pollution Disputes & Suits

It was just a couple weeks ago that the US Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal by Canadian mining firm Teck Cominco of a lower court decision in 2006 that "an American environmental law applied to a foreign company when some of its pollution reaches U.S. territory." Indian tribes and environmentalists in the northwest claimed Teck Comincos effluents were polluting the Columbia River.

Now in what appears to be turnabout is fair play, DTE Energy is in the crosshairs of Canadian environmental groups over cross border mercury emissions. An excerpt from follows:

On Wednesday, the Superior Court of Justice in Sarnia, Ontario issued an order directing a lower court to summon DTE Energy to face charges for poisoning the St. Clair River with dangerous amounts of mercury. Michigan's DTE Energy Company is being charged for its role in polluting the St. Clair River with mercury.

And this tidbit from Toronto's The Star:

The case will probably be "a really uphill battle," for the Alliance, said Barry Spiegel, at Toronto's Willms & Shier Environmental Lawyers.

It's not likely DTE would be legally required to obey a summons from Ontario or be penalized if it didn't appear in court and was convicted anyway, particularly since it has no assets or workers in Ontario.

"It's hard to say how far (the Alliance prosecution) will go," he said.

If the lawyers are right, who wins and who loses? If a company is operating within its permit limits in the country and state it is in, how can it be held accountable in a foreign country? Let's all sue China for its mercury emissions and see how far we get. International understanding and cooperation are required, not cross border lawsuits.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

What do Umatilla, Steamboat Springs, TiO2, PG&Es Boardman and Sperm Have In Common? Read On

The effects of mercury emissions on our planet have brought together this disparate group in this installment of Hg-ATME.

Incineration of chemical weapons at Umatilla has been going on for about three years. Recently it has come under renewed attack by a "DC Watchdog" group stating there are better, safer ways to decontaminate mustard gas and other hazardous waste without mercury and other chemical emissions. KUOW, an NPR affiliate covered this story earlier this week.

Scientists studying in the clouds at DRI"s Storm Peak Laboratory above Steamboat Springs, CO have been witnessing an alarming increase in the amount of airborne mercury. Using some fairly new technology they are capable of detecting the "low" ambient concentrations, but do not be fooled by the word "low". Remember everything is relative. These ambient readings have gone up dramatically in very short order and because of the accumulative nature of mercury in the environment pose real concerns. Both KWGN2 and CBS4 in Denver covered this story.

In some hopeful news this week, Washington University in St. Louis, my sisters alma mater, along with Chrysler and Ameren are experimenting with some promising technology, reusing paint solids from automobile spray booths as supplemental fuel and also removing mercury from the flue gas. The paint solids were landfilled before Dr. Pratim Biswas, Stifel & Quinette Jens recognized the opportunity they possessed in removing mercury from the coal combustion process. See the paint residue is high in titanium dioxide (TiO2) which through a process known as chemisorption bonds with the mercury and is removed with the plants existing air pollution control devices. Sounds like a win-win-win, less waste, less coal, less mercury. A footnote from the Eurekalert release follows;

The project has been recognized with a pollution prevention award from the St, Louis chapter of the National Association of Environmental Managers and with an Environmental Leadership Award from Chrysler.

The Washington University, Chrysler and Ameren team also received the 2007 Chrysler Environmental Leadership Award.

As environmental groups continue to attack coal fired power plants (the activity du jour), Oregon's Boardman Station, the only coal fired plant in the state, is under fire from the Sierra Club and others claiming the plant is violating the Federal Clean Air Act with emissions of mercury and other dangerous substances. Excuse me, but, I think Boardman in all likelihood is operating in legal compliance with its operating permits. You and I and the Sierra Club and others may want stricter limits on pollution but until the laws change suing individual facilities is wasting our judicial system's time. An excerpt from the Bizjournals story follows;

The complaint alleges the Boardman plant is the largest emitter of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide in Oregon and that its ongoing emissions of mercury and other substances violates federal law and jeopardizes environmental and public health.

The effort is part of a national campaign by environmental groups to eliminate existing and proposed coal-fired power plants. Such plants provide more than half of the country's power but are also the nation's largest source of carbon dioxide.

I don't know what they think we will do without 50% of our power. Eliminating coal fired plants from our energy mix is an admirable goal but one that is decades away, that is unless you don't like air conditioning, heated homes in winter, night baseball, large screen TVs, and those really cool electric massagers.

And just when I thought I had heard every possible downside to mercury emissions along comes my old friend Wired magazine to zing me with a new one. Sperm in mice, and presumably humans too, have shriveled DNA due to air pollution, including mercury. It seems a team of scientists from Canada of all places (maybe their sperm DNA shriveled because it was too cold, but I digress) set mice in cages out in heavy industrial areas, some cages open to the pollution and others sealed getting only HEPA filtered air. Well, you guessed it, the ones breathing the pollution had sperm with shriveled DNA. And not only that the sperm were also hypermethylated, excessive gene activity. God, I hate when that happens. But seriously they are looking into the possible connection between these sperm mutations and the increase in childhood autism.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Recent CAMR / CAIR Update Slideshow

One of my colleagues sent me this link to a powerpoint Beth Murray of the EPA used in a training class that shows the current status of the Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR) and the Clean Air Mercury Rule (CAMR). You may find this interesting and useful.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

New Year Brings New Hope and Some Pretty Cool Mercury Pollution Research

Happy New Year to all. After returning from my Christmas vacation there was not much going on within the mercury legislation circles. We all anxiously await the decision by the D.C. Appeals Court on the legality of the Federal CAMR. But that decision appears to be a month or two away.
The Allen S. King coal-fired power plant near Stillwater is the first of three Xcel
Energy plants to go on line with new emissions reduction equipment, as part of a
voluntary cleanup agreement with the state. (Courtesy of Xcel Energy)

Xcel Energy promises to install carbon injection systems on two of its larger units in Minnesota, reducing mercury emissions by as much as 90% or more. The EPA gave its nod to the Northeast States plan to limit mercury in its lakes and streams, but without a National plan to reduce emissions from all coal fired power stations in a timely fashion the approval has little meaning.

Some groups in Virginia are calling on their state to ratchet down mercury emissions by pointing to other more aggressive states and the folks in Grand Island, NE are getting a grasp on what they need to do to bring their cities power plant into compliance by 2010.

While I was skimming through the literature on mercury emissions I came across a notable project being undertaken at Dartmouth University. They are launching an interdisciplinary study on the social and economical impacts of mercury pollution. This promises to be like no other research project in its approach to gaining understanding of what really happens to populations as they are exposed to rising levels of mercury pollution. Not just health effects but a holistic look at all the impacts of a toxin in our environment. An excerpt from VOX of Dartmouth follows;

Even at Dartmouth, where interdisciplinary projects abound, this one stands out, says principal investigator Mark Borsuk, an assistant professor at Thayer School of Engineering. “Not only are we from four different departments, we are overseen by three different deans. The grant proposal needed three times the typical number of signatures.” The team includes Borsuk; Darren Ranco, assistant professor of Native American studies and environmental studies; Richard Howarth, the Pat and John Rosenwald Professor and professor of environmental studies; and Andrew King, associate professor of business administration at the Tuck School of Business. The project is funded by a three-year, $300,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Collaborative Science and Technology Network for Sustainability program. The group will apply a combination of economic and social scientific theory, environmental modeling, behavioral experiments, and interviews with “stakeholders,” or those affected by mercury pollution. The goal is to identify compelling “indicators” of mercury pollution—ways of characterizing the pollutant’s impact that are especially meaningful to the public. For example, a “biological indicator” might be the mercury levels in a popular fish or wildlife species, while a “social indicator” may range from the average number of IQ points a child loses when exposed to high levels of the pollutant, to the number of public meetings attended by members from impacted communities to implement the regulations.

I wish this team the best of luck and look forward to their findings as they are released.