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WisBusiness: International Mercury Pollution Conference Hits Madison

By Brian E. Clark


MADISON – Wisconsin businesses and utilities will be closely monitoring the huge “Mercury as a Global Pollutant” conference that kicks off Sunday and runs through Friday at the Monona Terrace Convention Center.

The gathering is expected to attract more than 1,000 scientists, academics and policy makers from 44 countries, as well as representatives of industries and nongovernmental organizations involved in mercury issues.

Sen. Russ Feingold is scheduled to speak at the opening ceremony at 6:15 p.m. His talk is titled “Perspectives on Mercury.”

Scientists say mercury is a deadly neurotoxin. They have been closely studying its effects on humans for 50 years, when mercury contaminated industrial waste polluted Minamata Bay in Japan, killing and injuring thousands.

One of the plenary sessions of the conference will focus on health risks of exposure to methylmercury, a byproduct of some industries and the burning of fossil fuels, particularly coal.

Scott Manley, environmental policy director for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, said several members of his organization will attend.

“Mercury is something we are tracking,” he said, noting that there is ongoing discussion on how much mercury in the environment comes from coal-fired power plants and other kinds of industry.

“There is a lot of data out there and I’ve seen some studies that say that only 2 percent of what gets deposited is due to coal and other sources.

“But we recognize that the scientific debate (over the seriousness of mercury pollution) is pretty much over,” he acknowledged. “Our position is simple, that Wisconsin has an obligation to follow federal air standards.”

Bill Skewes, executive director of the Wisconsin Utility Association, said his organization also will send representatives to the conference.

“We want to help contribute to the development of the public policy in this area and we also want that policy to be based on sound science,” he said.

He said Wisconsin’s utilities agreed two years ago to a state mercury rule that requires a 75 percent reduction of mercury emissions from power plants by the year 2015 as a bridge to federal rules.

“Our concern is that Wisconsin might go beyond the federal regulations, even though we have a state law that says Wisconsin can be no more stringent than what the federal government requires,” he said.

“Environmental activists and the Department of Natural Resources are always pushing the envelope,” he continued. “So we will monitor and be engaged in state rules because of the major costs for emission controls and the cost to customers.”

Todd Stuart, executive director of the Wisconsin Industrial Energy Group, agreed with Skewes and said at least one member of his organization is considering manufacturing changes that would wipe out its mercury emissions.

“We’re also very concerned about how clean air rules will be applied concerning mercury,” he said. “We want to follow the federal guidelines. We worry that if we go beyond that, Wisconsin could become a regulatory island with higher standards than surrounding states and that could potentially cost us billions of dollars and thousands of jobs.”

Jon Heinrich, who works in the DNR’s Bureau of Air Management, agreed that in some ways, Wisconsin’s mercury emission rules are tougher than the federal government’s.

But the EPA regulations are stricter in other areas, he noted. In any case, he said the state would follow federal guidelines.

Heinrich said he is impressed with coal-gasification, an “emerging technology” that could cut or significantly reduce air pollutants – including mercury -- coming from coal-burning power plants.

But the costs of the technology are considerable, he acknowledged. And utility officials have said that while they are interested in the process for future projects, the process now essentially calls for the building of two plants.

“It’s on the horizon,” he said, noting that other industries in Wisconsin are also looking to eliminate their mercury emissions.

Dave Krabbenhoft, a geochemist with the U.S. Geological Survey and co-chair of the conference, said he understands that the costs to industry can be high to reduce mercury emissions.

“Nothing is free,” he said. “Part of the reason for this conference is to have a discussion about all aspect of this. Business and industry has a right to be skeptical about something that could cost millions and billions of dollars.”

But Krabbenhoft said he is comfortable with the science that has shown that mercury is a dangerous pollutant and that coal-fired plants in the U.S. are pumping out nearly 50 metric tons of mercury annually. Much of that pollution ends up in lakes and is of particular concern to states in the Upper Midwest, he said.

Though there are natural sources for mercury – such as volcanoes and forest fires – he said two-thirds of it is produced by man.

“It is a serious neurotoxin and policy makers have decided it the proper thing to reduce it,” he said.

Krabbenhoft said he is optimistic that combustion engineers will be able to develop cost-effective ways to keep mercury out of the air.

“Researchers working for the utilities, Department of Energy and other labs are trying to come up with solutions,” he said. “That’s one of the many areas that will be covered in this conference.”

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