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Slowing Down Quicksilver

While parents worry, the feds stay cool to regulating the poisonous mercury from power plants

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Brody Conroy is having a grand time at his neighbor's house, hugging the dog, scattering pretzels, and then racing up the stairs so he can bounce down on his diapered butt. "He's my class clown," says Kelly Conroy, of her nearly 3-year-old son. "Anything for a laugh." When the neighbor's daughters head for the sun room, Brody turns to Kelly and asks, "I, too?" She consents, and off he dashes.

Brody wasn't born this sunny. He "screamed for the first four or five months, constantly," says Kelly. He had breathing, bowel and muscle problems, including a form of cerebral palsy. "They didn't think he'd ever walk," says Kelly. After a two-week vacation in Florida just prior to his first birthday, however, Brody started making enormous strides. "That Florida air really did him good," Kelly says, though Brody still suffers from tremors, weakness, delayed speech development, asthma and sinus infections.

Kelly's elder son, 6-year-old Brendan, isn't with her today. He refused to come home from his grandma's house last night. Did he enjoy the sleepover? "He didn't sleep," says Kelly. Sometimes he goes 48 hours without catching a wink. "Is it anxiety that makes him not sleep? We can't figure that out."

In mid-2002, a child-development professional working with Brody observed Brendan, and suggested that Kelly have him evaluated. At first Kelly bristled at having her bright, eccentric firstborn scrutinized, but then she gave in. At the evaluation, Kelly says, "He [couldn't] draw a face. He can't do those things." He wouldn't answer questions directly, either. "I cried the whole way home." Brendan was later diagnosed with hyperactivity and Asperger's syndrome, a type of autism. He can memorize the layers of the rainforest ecosystem, but can't dress himself or converse with a stranger.

It may be coincidence that the symptoms of both autism and cerebral palsy closely resemble those of mercury poisoning. Mercury -- also known as quicksilver -- is an element with many uses, including in flu vaccines, and many sources, including coal-burning power plants. One such power plant is just eight blocks from the Conroys' Springdale Borough home.

Reliant Energy's Cheswick plant probably can't be directly blamed for Brendan's autism or Brody's cerebral palsy; its annual 200-pound output of mercury spreads far and wide, diluted by the atmosphere. There it joins mercury from thousands of other polluters, including U.S. power plants that are allowed to release as much of the neurotoxin as they want. That mercury later falls to earth, and begins its slow march up the food chain, back to the species that released it, and especially to its young and unborn.

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Mercury has the distinction of being the only common metal that occurs as a liquid at normal temperatures. As a result of its unique characteristics, it has been used in thermometers, barometers, batteries, electrical switches, dental fillings, disinfectants, vaccines, skin-lightening creams, fungicides, and even those shoes with lights that flash when kids walk. The biggest source of mercury is the smoke from coal-burning power plants. That's why the "mercury debate" is currently focused on how much, and how quickly, to limit power plants' rights to release the potent toxin into the atmosphere.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mercury exposure can cause brain and kidney damage, personality changes, tremors, changes in vision, deafness, poor muscle coordination, loss of sensation, memory problems, lower intelligence and retardation, especially when fetuses or children are exposed to high doses. The National Institutes of Health note that cerebral palsy and mercury poisoning have similar symptoms, and that the element "is thought to cause a form of cerebral palsy."

Far more controversial is the theory that mercury -- especially the form used until recently as a preservative in most childhood vaccines -- is responsible for a surge in autism diagnoses. That surge includes a nine-fold jump in the number of autistic schoolchildren in Pennsylvania since 1992. Some researchers hold that as the number of required vaccines increased, the mercury dose reached a level that a small percentage of kids couldn't handle, pushing them into a state of chronic mercury poisoning that accounts for much of the rise in autism cases. Most of the medical establishment isn't convinced, and the CDC has never accepted the theory. Nonetheless, the CDC ordered the phase-out of mercury from childhood vaccines beginning in 1999. It's still in most flu vaccines.

"There's a surprising amount not known about how mercury works as a neurotoxin," says Harvard Medical School professor of neurology David Bellinger. He expects to complete a 10-year study on the effects of mercury in dental fillings on child development next year. So far, he isn't convinced that mercury causes autism. He's also not sure there's a "safe" level of exposure. "It may be that some kids, for reasons we don't know yet, are just much more susceptible to the effects of mercury," he says. That's why he's concerned about the possibility of mercury "hot spots" around coal-burning power plants. Mercury gets into bacteria and then works its way up the food chain, he says, sometimes reaching dangerous concentrations in fish. It concentrates even more in fetuses. Estimates of the number of American children born with undesirable levels of mercury range up to 600,000 a year, he notes.

Power plants are far and away the biggest man-made source of mercury in the U.S., emitting about 91,000 pounds of the element in 2001, according to Environmental Protection Agency data. (As of deadline for this story, the release of 2002 pollution data was expected imminently.) In the waning days of Bill Clinton's administration, the EPA found that mercury emissions from power plants should be regulated and reduced as much as possible, setting a timetable that would have forced reductions that would start in 2004 and be fully phased in by the end of 2007.

Then George Bush became president. As the 2004 election approaches, the final decision on how to regulate mercury has been pushed back to March 2005. Meanwhile, power plants continue to send forth tons of quicksilver vapor -- especially in southwestern Pennsylvania.

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About 40 minutes' drive east of Downtown, just past the Westmoreland County town of Mamont on Route 286, is a shimmering body of pine-ringed water called the Beaver Run Reservoir. It's a source of drinking water, so there's no fishing allowed -- but that's not to say it isn't done. "There's a couple of older gentlemen that I see all the time, on the bridge, fishing," says one of the reservoir's neighbors.



According to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, those gentlemen shouldn't eat more than one meal per week of fish caught in the state. That recommendation goes for every waterway in the state, and is based on the tendency of fish to accumulate poisonous mercury, PCBs and chlordane. The commission also has a special recommendation for Beaver Run Reservoir: no more than two meals a month of largemouth bass from its waters, due to mercury contamination. (The Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County, which owns the reservoir, says the water is safe for drinking, with mercury levels so low as to be undetectable.)

The Fish and Boat Commission also recommends against eating more than two meals per month of largemouth bass pulled from Dunkard Creek in Greene County, or from Traverse Creek in Beaver County's Raccoon Creek State Park; more than two meals a month of smallmouth bass and walleye from the Youghiogheny River or Youghiogheny Lake in Fayette and Somerset counties; or more than two meals a month of trout from Thorn Creek in Butler County -- all because of mercury found in fish. Commission spokesman Dan Tredinnick says such recommendations reflect an abundance of caution. The limits are "aimed at protecting pregnant women and young children," Tredinnick says, but are prudent for everyone.

Though Beaver Run Reservoir is less than 20 miles east of Cheswick, it wouldn't be right to blame the power plant for any fish contamination there, says Steve Davies, Reliant's local environmental director. "The mercury coming down is from such a huge number of sources that the contribution of Cheswick is certainly negligible," he says.

Reliant's contributions as a whole, though, aren't negligible. Of the top 15 sources of airborne mercury in Pennsylvania in 2001, six are Reliant power plants. Eight of the top 15 were in southwestern Pennsylvania, including Reliant plants in Allegheny, Armstrong and Lawrence counties, and two in Indiana County. (Cheswick ranked 13th.) At the top was Reliant's Keystone plant in Armstrong County: The estimated 1,800 pounds of quicksilver coming out of its smokestacks earned it third-in-the-nation status for mercury air pollution, behind only a Nevada goldmine and a California cement company, according to EPA data.

In 2001, three of the top 100 mercury polluters in the country were southwestern Pennsylvania power plants, including Keystone, Reliant's Conemaugh plant in Indiana County, and First Energy's Bruce Mansfield plant in Beaver County. Reliant's five big southwestern Pennsylvania plants alone accounted for nearly one-third of the state's estimated 9,089 pounds of mercury released that year. Pennsylvania trailed only Texas, Nevada and Ohio in the amount of mercury spewed into the air.

Reliant's mercury numbers might dip somewhat, since the company is transforming a plant in Indiana County to a cleaner technology, says Davies. Federal mandates to reduce emissions of other pollutants will eventually also drive down mercury releases, he adds. But currently most of the plants, including Cheswick, are emitting about as much quicksilver as they did in 2001, he says. He claims it would cost $150 million to install as-yet-untested mercury reduction technology at Keystone. Given the competitive power market, he says, it would be tough "to justify measures over and above what our competitors are doing."

That's why a strong federal rule is so important, says Charles McPhedran, an attorney with the environmental group PennFuture. "If there's a regulation, and everybody has to do it, then the [competitive] playing field is still level," he says.

Power-industry groups seem resigned to some form of mercury regulation. The big question is: Who gets to write the rules?

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In December 2000, the EPA said that the best way to regulate mercury was to compel all plants to use the best available technology to reduce the pollutant. That's the approach environmental groups like. "The EPA should seek reductions at all big emissions sources now, not later," says McPhedran.

A month later Bush came to power, and the power industry came right along with him.

Political committees and executives representing the 30 biggest utility companies, including Houston-based Reliant, have given $6.6 million in campaign contributions to Bush's campaigns and the Republican National Committee since 1999, according to a May study by two nonpartisan, nonprofit organizations, Environmental Integrity Project and Public Citizen. Several power-industry executives and their lobbyists have earned the rank of Bush campaign "Pioneers" by raising $100,000, or have become "Rangers" by raising $200,000. Pioneers from the 2000 campaign include Reliant's former Chairman Don Jordan and former CEO Ron Letbetter. Reliant brass hasn't been as generous this time around, giving just $16,450 to Bush's campaign and $2,000 to Democrat John Kerry's, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics.



When Vice President Dick Cheney sat down to write the new administration's energy policy, many of the industry's leaders were at the table with him, according to the EIP/Public Citizen report. Part of that policy dealt with environmental rules.

In December 2003, Bush's EPA abandoned its prior call for maximum mercury reductions. The agency said that compelling all power plants to use the best available technology to reduce mercury would only cut their emissions of the poison by 30 percent by 2008. Instead, it proposed what's called "cap-and-trade" regulation. Under cap-and-trade, each state would get a mercury limit -- the "cap." The power plants within that state could buy, sell or trade the right to emit portions of the allowable total. The administration's stated goal is to reduce emissions by 70 percent -- by 2018.

The power industry likes the flexibility. "What the cap-and-trade programs allow you to do is pick and choose where you do your reductions," says Davies. "You get the most bang in terms of pollution reduction for the least buck in increased costs and rates."

The bang in Bush's proposal would come slowly, though. Through 2010, power plants would need do nothing specific about mercury, though measures to control sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides would likely take out some quicksilver, too. After 2010, the state caps would force the mercury down further, to less than one-third of current levels. EPA said that would be more than twice the reduction that would be achieved through ordering power plants to use the best available technology (though it would take 10 years longer). EPA's estimates, and the cap-and-trade approach generally, have come under fire from environmental groups and state agencies, including Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection. (See "Mercury Riling.")

The benefits from a cap-and-trade approach could be uneven. For instance, Reliant could install mercury controls at its biggest plants, and leave Cheswick untouched. McPhedran says nationwide or state caps might reduce the overall amount of mercury in the environment, but leave concentrations around old plants, like many of those in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Hit by hundreds of thousands of critical comments, the EPA pushed back its final decision on mercury restrictions until March, when either a second Bush administration or one led by Kerry will be at the controls.

* * *

Walking down Lincoln Avenue in Springdale, there's a sense of impotence. Running east from the Cheswick plant, Lincoln gets regular doses of what the residents believe is coal dust. Almost to a person, they're mad about it, but have no idea what to do. "It gets all in the house and in the air conditioner and in the cars and on the cars," says Bill Wisneski, who moved to Lincoln Avenue five years ago. Since then, he says he's developed sinus problems, which he blames on the coal dust. He hadn't heard about the mercury emissions, and even after he's told that the quicksilver in the air is very dilute, he's not happy about it. "Any mercury is bad," says the 41-year-old computer analyst. "Companies are supposed to be conscious of the communities they work in," he says. "If they're not doing it, the government should be all over them with fines and stuff."

Residents have contacted the Allegheny County Health Department numerous times in recent years. The department has taken samples, but hasn't determined whether the dark stuff on neighborhood windows, beach balls, playground equipment and cars comes from Reliant's plant. The department hasn't levied fines. It has no rules on mercury, and doesn't monitor the amount of the element in Springdale's air. The department's only monitoring stations for mercury are in Lawrenceville and Hazelwood, far from the plant that generates about three-quarters of the county's production of airborne quicksilver. Reliant agreed in February to better maintain the precipitators that remove some particulates from its smoke, although that was the result of a threatened lawsuit by the local Group Against Smog and Pollution, rather than any action by the EPA, DEP or Health Department.

Tom and Gina Shock lived on Lincoln Avenue for six years. Their daughters Emily, age 5, and McKenzie, 2, were born during that time, and they show no ill effects. The dust drove Gina to distraction. "This was a wedding gift," she says, pointing to a wood entertainment center, "and I literally cried, because there was so much coal dust embedded in this." Tom, a field supervisor for an environmental remediation company, worried about long-term health effects. In April, after years of complaining to Reliant and the Health Department about coal dust, they moved seven blocks down, right next to Kelly Conroy.

Kelly is going even further. As we sit talking, she's days away from moving to Florida. She's not fleeing the power plant, or purposefully returning to the scene of the vacation that seemed to spur Brody's improvements. It's just that her husband, a software development project manager, couldn't find full-time work in Pittsburgh, and got a job down there. Brendan, she says, "is having a really hard time with it."

It so happens Florida is a leader in mercury control. It cut mercury emissions from incinerators in southern Florida by 99 percent, and then noted a 60 percent drop in the concentrations found in fish in the Everglades swamp. Kelly is more concerned with Florida's services for autistic kids like Brendan, which she says are far less comprehensive than those available in Pennsylvania.

Does she ever wonder why her kids face challenges most don't? "Every day, every minute," Kelly says. She's cut Brody's vaccination regimen short, just in case. They don't eat much fish. But you can't cut down on air. "Any time you talk about environmental factors, and things you know are toxic, we as parents are going to worry," she says. "On days when Brendan is worse, I wonder whether that could have been prevented."

Mercury Riling

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