Thursday, October 21, 2010

Why You Need To Care About Mercury

Mercury is probably most commonly associated with thermometers. While the metallic element is rarely used for measuring temperature now, it remains part of many products and is emitted from the smoke stacks of power plants that burn coal. Power plants like those found in Nova Scotia.

In 2006, environment ministers of every political stripe gathered and decided to regulate mercury emissions on a national basis. The standards called for a decrease in mercury emissions at power plants in Canada. Nova Scotia adopted these guidelines.

It’s important to understand why the ministers were concerned about mercury. In their 2006 background document they said:

The Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) has determined that mercury levels in fish and wildlife across Canada warrant efforts to reduce mercury emissions in order to protect not only fish and wildlife, but also human health. Mercury is a toxic, persistent, bioaccumulative substance. It converts in water to the
highly toxic form, methyl mercury, which accumulates in fish and other species, damaging the central nervous system and causing reproductive failure among loons and river otters.

Human exposure to mercury – primarily by eating contaminated fish – may cause neurological and developmental damage. Low exposure to mercury may cause problems, such as learning disabilities in children. Women of childbearing age, pregnant women, children, and populations who depend on fish as a traditional food source are most at risk.

Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment, 2006

Removing mercury from coal plant emissions can be costly. Newer plants like Cape Breton’s Point Aconi are very efficient at limiting mercury emissions, but older plants need the addition of chemicals or technology to remove the mercury.

Earlier this year Nova Scotia Power announced plans for massive rate hikes they claimed were necessary to meet mercury emission targets (targets they’d known about since 2006). The NDP government quickly announced they would abandon the nationally agreed to mercury emission standards and let Nova Scotia Power put more of the dangerous element into our air and waterways. Nova Scotia Power responded with a slightly smaller proposed rate hike and this province became the only one that would not meet mercury emission targets.

At the time I said relaxing mercury standards should be a last resort – after all other options were considered. Turns out there were other options to keep rates down.

Evidence presented at this week’s Utility and Review Board hearing questioned whether mercury could be better captured using existing technology such as precipitators, bag houses, and the capture of unburned carbon in fly ash which is common in the Colombian coal used by Nova Scotia Power. This week’s hearing demonstrated the provincial government moved without all the evidence, putting the health of Nova Scotians at risk.

They claim relaxing mercury emission targets was necessary to limit electrical rate increases. The truth is there were many other strategies that could have been considered. For example Nova Scotia Power could reduce its power rate hike using money it received as a result of controversial penalties it charged renewable energy suppliers last year. Nova Scotia Power could defer part of its proposed rate hike over a two to three year period which would lessen the impact to ratepayers. Nova Scotia Power could also return to its customers the $5 million incentive it earned for saving money on fuel costs in 2009 – a savings which has now largely vanished.

The government will tell you they’ve made the limits on mercury emissions at some distant point stronger than they were originally to compensate for the changes. The fact is, in 2006 the joint Canadian ministers of the environment talked about the possibility of even lower emission targets than now proposed for the future. So while it’s true they’ve formally set targets for those years, they could still turn out to be higher than what will be recommended nationally. In any case, it really doesn’t change the heart of the problem.

You can read about fish and other food products being taken off the market due to mercury levels. Pregnant women are warned to stay away from certain fish species. Mercury stays in the environment. It’s why the ministers were worried about it. It’s why it was important to reduce mercury emissions early.

It’s important to protect Nova Scotians from rapidly increasing electrical costs – particularly the lowest income ratepayers and most vulnerable business customers. The government had options. They took the easy road and put the health of Nova Scotians at risk for years to come.