Charlotte is leading the country, along with three other cities, when it comes to heaviest mercury polluters, according to a four-year-long report conducted by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scheduled to be published this summer. Charlotte's problem comes from a variety of sources, but the biggest contributor is coal power plants, and Charlotte has five within the 200-mile in-range radius.
On March 31, the NC Department of Health and Human Services expanded the list of fish containing dangerous mercury levels to 22, and it now includes the popular largemouth bass. "It's not widely publicized. It's not in the news. Doctors don't even know," said John Suttles, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, who was in Charlotte last week to speak at the Sierra Club-sponsored Fish-less Fish Fry.
The EPA estimates just under 14,000 children are born each year with unsafe levels of mercury in their blood. The contamination is known to cause mental retardation, learning disabilities and loss of IQ points.
The attitude from legislators has been to pat themselves on the back for the Clean Smokestacks Act, said Suttles, and to shun the mercury problem. Though the Clean Smokestacks Act, passed four years ago, was one of the most aggressive state policies aimed to clean up coal plant pollution, the pollution-reducing scrubbers being built as a result of the legislation were designed to limit smog and soot pollution, not mercury. For mercury, the scrubbers are projected to reduce emissions by only 65 percent, under the 90 percent target that many environmental advocates and states believe should be the minimum for a risk-free lifestyle.
Getting to 90 percent wouldn't be that difficult, Suttles said. The technology to limit mercury pollution only costs about $1 million per coal plant. (The cost to install one scrubbers is 100 times more.) If the cost were shifted to consumers in the same way the Clean Smokestacks tab was, it would result in a one year increase of $10 per person.