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US States Get Ready to Fight Mercury Pollution

New York and six other Northeastern states in the US are stepping up their efforts to force the federal government to enact tougher standards of mercury emissions.//

Throughout the Northeast, mercury contamination has become a growing health concern. Mercury is a metal that occurs naturally.

It is released in a gaseous form when coal is burned in electrical generating plants.

Smokestack emissions drift across state borders, and the mercury lands far from where it was released.

As the mercury falls on lakes and streams, it becomes methylmercury, a neurotoxin that accumulates in fish, with concentrations increasing in larger fish that eat smaller ones.

The presence of harmful levels of mercury has led to health advisories limiting the consumption of sport fish taken from thousands of lakes, rivers and streams in the Northeast.

In New York State, most of the lakes and streams in the Adirondack and Catskill Mountains are posted with consumption advisories because of excessive mercury levels.

In such a backdrop, seven states have entered into a regional pact on the issue and say that if only the mercury contamination in the region was reduced drastically, the amount of mercury in fish would also decline to levels at which consumption advisories could be lifted.

In recent years, New York has taken several actions to reduce or eliminate mercury contamination. The state has adopted tough air control standards to reduce mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants within its borders by 90 percent by 2015, far exceeding existing the federal regulations.

The state has also tried to reduce the amount of elemental mercury in the environment by requiring dentists to collect and recycle mercury in dental fillings so that it is not flushed down drains or thrown into the trash.

Claiming that they have done about as much as they can to reduce mercury pollution within thei r own borders, the states plan to focus on airborne mercury that drifts into the region from the Midwest, particularly from those states where coal-fired power plants are the prime source of electricity.

Under the draft mercury plan announced yesterday, the states would use provisions of the federal Clean Water Act to establish maximum levels of mercury that local lakes and rivers could absorb.

Calculations of those maximum levels would recognize that the majority of mercury pollution in the region comes from other states.

Thus, for the Northeastern states to meet federal clean water standards, the other states would have to reduce the amount of mercury they put into the air.

In such a situation, they hope, the federal government would be forced to step in and set national standards.

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