PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — The Aroostook Band of Micmacs has completed the installation of a continuous atmospheric mercury monitoring system at its local office that will allow the tribe to monitor the impact that mercury pollution has on fish, other wildlife and humans.
Fred Corey, environmental director for the tribe, said Monday that the instrumentation needed for the project was installed two weeks ago. The tribe used a $143,000 federal grant gleaned in October along with tribal funds to finance the $194,127 project.
Mercury occurs naturally in the environment and also can be released into the air through industrial pollution. It falls from the air and can get into surface water, accumulating in streams and oceans, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Bacteria in the water then cause chemical changes that transform mercury into methylmercury, which can be toxic to the nervous system. Fish absorb it as they feed on aquatic organisms and humans consume it with the fish.
The Micmac lab system is now one of 16 monitoring stations across North America that are part of the National Atmospheric Deposition Program’s Atmospheric Mercury Network.
Each station measures the concentration of atmospheric mercury fractions from continuously automated measuring systems, the concentration of total mercury in precipitation, and meteorological conditions. The goal is to archive the data for use in scientific studies, modeling efforts and policymaking.
In Presque Isle, officials will document and track atmospheric mercury deposition in the Northeast. Corey said that the tribe is concerned about mercury deposition in Maine because of a statewide fish consumption advisory that severely restricts eating of freshwater fish, as well as the harmful effects on wildlife that consume fish.
“In our tribal culture, we eat a lot of fish,” he said. “And there is a concern about mercury in fish. But it’s not just concern for fish. It’s also loons and otters, animals that feed on fish. It impacts these animals and their reproductive health. It damages their nervous systems. There are now restrictions on how much fish a pregnant woman can eat due to mercury levels, and there are warnings about mercury toxicity in fish for adults. At the same time, fish is a wonderfully healthy food. There needs to be more research, and we are happy to help.”
According to the National Atmospheric Deposition Program, the largest source of mercury pollution in the U.S. is atmospheric emissions and subsequent deposition associated with combustion from coal-fired power plants, waste incinerators and chlorine production plants.
Corey said that while state and federal efforts have reduced mercury emissions in Maine and across the nation, there is growing concern about global increases in mercury emissions as a result of the construction of hundreds of coal-fired utility plants in China and India that do not use mercury pollution control technology. There also is a growing fear that climate change may result in increased mercury deposition rates.
“Mercury is a global pollutant,” he said “It’s not just one nation’s problem.”
Earlier this month, environmental groups spoke out against Gov. Paul LePage after he refused to sign a petition in favor of tough standards in nine states from which pollution affects air quality in Maine and other eastern states.
Governors in eight northeastern and mid-Atlantic states — including every New England state except Maine — have asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to force states in the Midwest and South to reduce ozone-forming power plant emissions.
The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on the EPA’s 2011 Cross-State Air Pollution Rule on Dec. 10. The rule would compel 27 states with coal pollution that blows across state lines into the eastern U.S. to limit soot and smog.
Jessamine Logan, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, said Maine joined two other Ozone Protection Zone states — Pennsylvania and New Jersey, as well as Washington, D.C. — in abstaining from the petition, in part because Maine’s air is already clean enough to meet federal standards.
Glen Brand, director of Sierra Club Maine, said LePage’s refusal to sign the petition “fails to protect the health of Maine families.”
Corey said that the data collected at the Micmac’s air quality station is exactly what lawmakers and policymakers will benefit from when they are called upon to make rules and regulations about such issues.
“These lawmakers, these decision makers, can look at the information that we have collected,” he said Friday. “They are the ones that are making clean air laws.”