Maine and six other Northeastern states are petitioning the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to crack down on airborne mercury that drifts into the region and builds up to unsafe levels in fish.
In what is believed to be an unprecedented move, the states are invoking a provision of the Clean Water Act that would require the EPA to work with upwind states to develop plans to reduce mercury pollution in waterways in New England and New York.
The petition is the latest in a series of legal maneuvers the states have taken to force the federal government to take a tougher stance on mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants outside of the region.
Officials claim that mercury pollution from other regions is a major reason why freshwater fish in many New England waterways are unsafe to eat. The other states involved in the petition are Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont and New York.
Andrew Fisk with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection said all of the petitioning states have taken aggressive steps to reduce mercury pollution from power plants and industry and in the waste stream.
But Fisk said studies have shown that much of the airborne mercury now making its way into Northeastern lakes, rivers and streams comes from coal-fired power plants in places like Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania.
Fish in Maine and the Northeastern waters will not reach safe levels of mercury unless those states with coal-fired power plants significantly reduce emissions, Fisk said. The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention has issued fish consumption advisories for all waters in Maine due to mercury.
Mercury is a powerful neuro-toxin that is particularly dangerous to pregnant women and young children.
Officials from the participating states are arguing that the EPA should use both the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act to regulate mercury emissions. The states want EPA officials to hold a conference with the involved states as a first step to new restrictions on mercury emissions.
“We are going to be persistent, thoughtfully persistent in showing there are mechanisms to compel the EPA to do this,” Fisk said.
Specifically, the states want the EPA to require power plants that burn coal to install technology that would eliminate 90 percent of the mercury emissions currently coming from their stacks. That figure is based on a regional analyses — endorsed by the EPA — showing how the Northeastern states could once again make many of their wild fish populations safe to eat.
“We’ve filed scientifically rigorous cleanup plans that have been endorsed by EPA, but there is still no credible work to make our fish safe to eat,” DEP Commissioner David Littell said in a statement. “This petition is another avenue to keep dirty power plants’ feet to the fire.”
The seven participating states also have been part of a larger effort to force the EPA under the Bush administration to rewrite a mercury air pollution rule that they claim does not protect public health.
Federal appeals courts declared the mercury rule invalid earlier this year, but Fisk said he and others believe the approach being urged Tuesday will be more productive.
“We would like to have this in a setting of a conference with our peers from other states so we can work this out,” Fisk said. “We don’t think continuing to appeal the Clean Air Mercury Rule through the Supreme Court is a solution.”
An EPA official pledged that the agency will continue to work with the states on the issue.
“Protecting people and watersheds from mercury contamination is a priority,” Benjamin H. Grumbles, EPA’s assistant administrator for water, said in a statement. “EPA will continue to work with our partners, locally and regionally, to use available tools and explore new ones to prevent water pollution and protect public health.”