Texas power plants emitted more than twice as much mercury as those in any other state in 2008, according to a March report from Environmental Integrity Project.
The nonpartisan advocacy group listed five coal-fired Texas plants as among the ten worst emitters of mercury in the nation. Once present in the environment, mercury accumulates in fish tissue, which can be toxic when consumed. Twenty-five Texas counties, as well as all Gulf of Mexico coastal waters, are currently under fishing consumption advisories due to high mercury levels.
“It doesn’t take much mercury to contaminate a body of water,” said Adam Engelman, research assistant at the nonprofit.
Engelman and his colleagues compiled a state-by-state comparison of mercury emissions using the most recent data available from 2008. Texas plants emitted 11,722 pounds of mercury, a slight increase from the previous year. Ohio was the second worst offender, emitting 5,680 pounds.
A technique called sorbent injection has been shown to reduce mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants by up to 90 percent, according to the report. Plants can be retrofitted with sorbent injection at relatively low cost, but there are currently no regulations in place that require existing plants to upgrade, Engelman said.
“If companies aren’t required to [install sorbent injection], it’s unlikely they’ll put it on, just for business reasons,” Engelman said.
Texas is home to three of the top five mercury-emitting plants in the country, all owned by Dallas-based electric company, Luminant. The company’s management has chosen to retrofit all of its coal-fired plants with sorbent injection systems, and expects to complete upgrades this year, said Ashley Monts, company spokeswoman.
“Luminant is currently doing more than any other company in the nation to voluntarily cut mercury emissions from our coal-fueled power plants,” Monts said.
Engelman was hopeful that Luminant’s upgrades will effectively decrease state-wide emissions.
“It’s quite possible that those mercury levels will be down in a few years when the new numbers come out,” he said.
Mercury is present naturally in the environment, but its levels have greatly increased since the Industrial Revolution. Seventy percent of man-made mercury in Texas comes from power plants, according to a 2006 report from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The majority of the state’s coal-fired power plants are concentrated in East Texas, which is where fishing advisories for mercury are most prevalent.
Mercury monitoring and sampling at inland waterways typically happens only after receipt of a research grant for a specific site where contamination is suspected, said Kirk Wiles, spokesman for Texas Department of State Health Services.
“We do not routinely go out and monitor area waterways,” he said. “There’s really no funding to do it.”
The agency’s sporadic testing does not allow it to track long-term trends in mercury pollution, Wiles said. Once an area is contaminated and a fishing consumption advisory has been issued, it remains in place perpetually.
“When we have re-monitored areas, we don’t find great changes,” Wiles said. “Mercury is a long-term concern once it’s in the environment.”
Women of child-bearing age and pregnant women are the greatest concern in consuming fish with high levels of mercury as developing fetuses are extremely susceptible to the toxin’s effects. Children with mercury poisoning commonly display slow speech development or difficulty in walking, Wiles said.
Tracking mercury contamination in Texas is an enormous task shared by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which samples five rivers annually, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which samples 20 reservoirs annually.
“We’re doing what we think is reasonable to try to monitor [mercury contamination] and get a handle on it,” said Tom Harvey, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department spokesman.
In a 3-year study from 1999 to 2001, researchers found high levels of mercury in 25 percent of the 60 reservoirs they sampled, Harvey said. Fishing advisories were issued for those water bodies and they became the focus of future monitoring and sampling efforts.
Despite mercury advisories for 16 inland waterways, affecting 25 counties, Harvey said fishing participation has not decreased and fishing license sales have remained steady.
“Overall, I think most [recreational fishers] are probably not very worried about it,” Harvey said.
Federal regulation of mercury emissions stalled in 2008, when a federal court overturned the Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to cap and reduce emissions. At the state level, TCEQ currently has limits on air pollutants for new power plant construction, but none for existing plants.
The TCEQ is waiting for the EPA to act before it will regulate emissions from existing power plants, said Andrea Morrow, TCEQ spokeswoman. The EPA is expected to finalize federal rules by late 2011.