Mercury Emissions Raise Environmental Justice Issues for First Americans

Contributing writer: Katie Venechuk

Coal fueled power plants are the primary power source for the majority of Americans.  Mercury emissions are one of the largest environmental and health concerns connected to coal plants emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has acknowledged that coal-fueled power plant emissions are the largest human-caused emissions of mercury in the United States.  There are more than 7,300 Native Americans residing in West Michigan and they are justifiably concerned over the rising mercury levels in Michigan’s lakes and streams.

Lee Sprague, a member of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians expressed his sadness in an article published through the Native News Network: “My three daughters and granddaughter cannot eat the fish in Michigan without endangering the life of future generations. This contradicts what our elders have always taught us to do.  This is the third generation in the history of my peoples that our young children and our women of childbearing age, can no longer eat the fish given to us by the Creator to provide us with sustenance.”

When the James De Young Coal Plant in Holland, Michigan proposed an expansion in 2009, the Native American community stepped forward.  Native speakers expressed concern about their family’s health and the ability to safely practice cultural traditions such as fishing in native waters.

One native speaker criticized the Department of Environmental Quality for not conducting an environmental justice assessment.  The speaker said, “It is just one more example of how the government does not care about the well being of native people.”

The plant in Holland produces 4 pounds of mercury per year.  With the new expansion, an additional 1.33 pounds of Mercury per year would be added to the emissions. These mercury emissions will undoubtedly contribute to the contamination in West Michigan’s waters and the Native American’s primary food source.  Despite their best efforts, the permit for expansion was issued.

The EPA has established Activated Carbon Injection (ACI) as the Best Available Technology (BAT) to lower mercury levels in coal emissions. Many plants have yet to adopt the BAT’s supported by the EPA, including the James De Young Coal Plant.

“Our people have always gained subsistence from rivers and lakes. Eating fish is a part of our DNA; it’s part of who we are.” Stated Jimmie Mitchell, chairmen of the natural resources commission with the Little River Band of Ottawa. Allowing an uncontrolled amount of mercury to be emitted is a blatant disregard for the concerned Native’s of the community.  If coal plants continue to provide the primary source of power in the United States, regulatory action needs to be taken and enforced.

A typical coal fueled power plant releases 170 pounds of mercury into the air in one year.  Mercury is absorbed into water vapor, and falls to the ground in raindrops, effectively washing into lakes and streams.  According to Iain Taylor, a policy analyst with the Clean Air Council in Philadelphia, “Mercury cannot be destroyed and airborne mercury can travel up to 600 miles, depending on wind speed and direction.”  The National Wildlife Federation has stated that as little as .002 pounds of mercury a year can contaminate a 25-acre lake to the point where fish are unsafe to eat.  

Mercury is a neurotoxicant, meaning it is a chemical that specifically affects the nervous system and the development of the human body.  The most common way people are exposed to mercury is by eating methylmercury-contaminated fish.  Michigan’s fish is a primary food source for their community and the rising mercury levels disproportionately affects them.

The most recent Michigan advisory warns against eating more than one meal per week of many species caught in inland lakes.  It also recommends that woman of childbearing age and children under the age of 15 should not eat fish from local waters more than once a month. According to information utilized by the EPA for developing models for federal consumption advisories, some Native American subpopulations eat up to 62 fish meals a year.  An average American eats around 36 fish meals a year. A paper published by Amy Roe with the University of Delaware’s Center for Energy and Environmental Policy stated, “…studies have detected elevated mercury levels in the blood of some Chippewa’s.  Indigenous groups who eat fish in contaminated waters are paying for their culture with their health.”

Some 31.5% of Native Women that are of childbearing age have blood mercury levels above the health guideline, compared to 15.3% of white woman at childbearing age.  A mercury level above the EPA’s recommended limit creates risks during critical periods of development for a child or expectant mother.  Mercury has been known to contribute to irreversible deficits in a child’s verbal skills, as well as damage to attention and motor control, and a reduced IQ. 

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