Environment Michigan
The Detroit Free Press
Kimberly Hill

It's time for President Barack Obama to get us across the finish line on mercury pollution.

The problem has been clear from the get-go: Burning coal makes us sick. The pollution from burning coal causes a host of serious health problems -- especially for children and senior citizens -- including asthma, respiratory illness, cancer, neurological problems and heart disease. Disposing of toxic coal ash is also dangerous: Studies show that living near a toxic coal ash site is worse for your health than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.

But mercury is one of the worst of the pollutants coming out of coal smokestacks. Mercury makes its way from coal-fired power plants into the human body via contaminated fish, and it is a potent neurotoxin.

Mercury exposure puts fetuses at risk for learning disabilities, developmental disorders and lower IQs. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, at least 1 in 12 -- and as many as 1 in 6 -- American women of childbearing age have enough mercury in their bodies to put their fetuses at risk.

Scary stuff. And yet our power plants are allowed to spew mercury pollution without national limits. Dirty coal-fired power plants are the No. 1 source of mercury in the U.S., emitting more than 130,000 pounds of toxic mercury pollution in 2009 alone.

Our utility provider, DTE Energy, is heavily reliant on coal to generate electricity. Look at DTE corporate reports: Almost 80% of our electricity comes from coal. This is compared with a national average of 45%. Michigan is the 10th worst mercury-polluted state in the nation, according to Environment Michigan.

DTE's Monroe, Trenton and River Rouge power plants are some of the worst offenders, contributing almost 1,700 pounds of mercury to the environment in 2009, according to their own Toxic Release Inventory data.

This is not only bad for the Great Lakes, but people of color are disproportionately affected by contamination in fish. The Detroit River draws visitors from across the city for its scenic beauty and fish habitat. Very seldom is the Detroit River put under advisory or closed because of contamination. As a result, many Detroiters are unaware of the dangers lurking in the river.

The Michigan Department of Community Health advises that catfish and drum (also known as carp) pulled from the Detroit River are unsafe to eat -- by anyone, anytime. The state recommends instead driving more than 30 miles to Belleville Lake or Pontiac Lake to fish for catfish. Unfortunately, many Detroiters do not have the luxury to travel to Belleville every time they want to eat this southern favorite. Furthermore, many who catch fish on the Detroit River probably don't know the harm they may be causing to their children by serving it.

But the EPA and Obama administration can help alleviate this. Federal mercury protections, such as those that the EPA proposed in March, would reduce mercury in our air and water by more than 90%.

The new EPA protections would reduce health care costs for working families and taxpayers by preventing illnesses caused by toxic pollution. Mercury protections would also create new, good jobs -- an estimated 31,000 short-term construction jobs and 9,000 permanent utility jobs -- for workers installing and operating pollution-control equipment on power plants.

Reining in toxic mercury emissions will also speed the transition to clean energy that can put America back to work. By replacing dirty coal plants with investments in renewable energy, we can create thousands of good jobs in Detroit.

To get this done, we need Obama and the EPA to rein in toxic mercury pollution with strong federal protections.