September 8, 2005

Tainted Loons, U.S. Senators tackle EPA on Mercury

RANGELEY, Maine -- The scruffy loon chick let out an unpracticed version of the water bird's famed call as researchers tested it for mercury from its native northern New England, home to one of America's highest known concentrations of the dangerous toxin.

Measurements from the baby bird, and hundreds of other loons, lie at the heart of a battle over mercury emissions and controls in Congress.

Led by Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, a group of senators want to try a rarely used legislative tactic to overturn emission regulations issued this year by the Environmental Protection Agency. They are pushing for debate in the Senate by next week when the deadline for Congress to act expires.

The regulations essentially switched mercury from being regulated as a hazardous pollutant under the Clean Air Act -- which would have forced hundreds of coal-fired power plants to reduce emissions -- to one with less stringent controls.

The regulations call for a 70 percent cut in emissions by 2015 and a cap-and-trade program to allow factories to buy credits from cleaner plants rather than reduce emissions.

Fourteen states, led by New Jersey, are challenging the EPA in court.

"Mercury is a huge threat. Every study that we see that comes out further underscores the fact that this is a potent neurotoxin that is having some serious serious impacts both on our people and on our ecosystem," said Christopher Ball, deputy attorney general in New Jersey.

Providing a lion's share of data in studies are common loons, considered a good scientific gauge of mercury because the long-lived, fish-eating birds show accumulation over time.

"I would start worrying if the loon is having trouble, because the loon is eating the same fish that people are eating," said Dave Evers of the Biodiversity Research Institute in Gorham, Maine. "It's a good early warning signal."

On a less scientific note, loons attract people's affection, he said. The way they carry their chicks on their backs, roll over while they swim and unleash their haunting calls make them endearing, he said.

"Mercury is invisible, and when you have something that's invisible, it's just hard to convey," Evers said. "But when that invisible threat's hitting something and harming it, and you're watching a loon, it definitely hits home."


A government-funded study this year identified nine mercury hot spots from New York to Canada. While mercury occurs naturally, experts say much comes from Midwestern power plants and moves airborne eastward across the nation.

In water, mercury travels up the food chain through fish, birds and mammals, causing neurological damage. Nearly every state has issued mercury warnings about eating local fish.

At one hot spot, in the pine forests of central Maine, institute researchers are wrapping up a summer of nightly trapping, testing and releasing hundreds of loons, some of whom have the highest contamination levels in the country.

"Some should be dead," said researcher Sarah Folsom. "They've got mercury levels way too high."

Trying to find as many loons as possible before autumn, researchers who work in the dark of night netted one chick who sat agreeably while they sampled its blood, clipped a feather, took measurements and attached identification bands.

But its sibling eluded capture for hours, diving deep into the pitch-black water to avoid researchers' spotlight and net.

At the EPA, spokesman John Millett said: "We think we can get good environmental results from the Northeast by the way we're going about it.

Power plants are responsible for about a third of U.S. man-made mercury emissions, according to the EPA.

Industry spokesmen say tossing the regulations could mean delays, unreasonable standards and higher electricity costs.

"To have Congress come in and derail that process is the wrong message," said Joe Lucas, head of Americans for Balanced Energy Choices that is funded by coal, rail and utility industries. "When you have a regulation in place that will use technology to reduce those emissions by 70 percent, then that is the right way to go."

Leahy calls the regulations disastrous. The EPA's inspector general and the federal General Accountability Office have criticized them as containing too much industry input.

"I am appalled at their audacious disregard for the health of the American people," Leahy wrote in his proposed resolution. "It is time to put people first, and to stop letting the big polluters and the special interests write the rules and run the show over at EPA."