Plant Scherer airborne mercury pollution plummets

hduncan@macon.comJanuary 3, 2013 

After years of being one of the top three mercury emitters among U.S. power plants, Plant Scherer in Monroe County has decreased its airborne mercury emissions dramatically.

The reductions are thanks to new pollution controls installed on the plant’s four coal-fired units between 2009 and 2010.

Mercury is a neurotoxin that can damage fetuses and cause developmental problems in children. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that more than 200,000 children may be born in Georgia each year with dangerously high levels of mercury in their blood.

When power plants release mercury into the air, it drops back to the ground with rain and enters nearby rivers and lakes, where it takes on a more toxic form and accumulates in fish and the people who eat them. Mercury contamination has caused the state to issue warnings about eating fish in thousands of miles of the state’s waterways, including portions of the Ocmulgee River and Lake Tobesofkee in Bibb County.

Plant Scherer was the most significant mercury polluter among the state’s power plants because it was the only one burning Western coal, which is low in sulfur but higher in mercury, said Jac Capp, air branch chief for the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.

The nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project released a report Thursday, as it does most years, using information that power plants report to the EPA to rank the plants’ mercury emissions. Plant Scherer ranked No. 3 in the nation as recently as 2008, when it released 1,589 pounds of mercury into the air. Last year, it wasn’t in the top 90. In the most recent report, it didn’t make the list at all.

The changes came after Georgia issued new rules to reduce mercury, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from power plants. Georgia Power, majority owner of Plant Scherer and its operator, began installing new technology to meet these limits in 2009 and finished in 2010.

“All the indications we have is that it’s been working very well,” Capp said.

In 2009, Scherer reported that its mercury emissions had plummeted to 888 pounds. The next year, they were just 237 pounds; in 2011, the most recent reporting year, emissions had dropped to 221 pounds, a decrease of 86 percent since 2008.

“There’s no doubt that this is great news for Georgia’s rivers and people who like to fish in them, since we should start seeing mercury reductions in fish very soon,” said Jenette Gayer, policy advocate for Environment Georgia.

“It shows that these reductions are possible,” she said, noting that Georgia Power had argued that some of the new pollution limits were unrealistic.

“The reduction in mercury emissions from Plant Scherer demonstrates the importance and efficacy of the Clean Air Act and state environmental regulations,” said Pierre Howard, president of the Georgia Conservancy. “Since electric utilities are reimbursed by ratepayers for all investment in pollution devices required by the Clean Air Act, plus a return on investment of over 11 percent, it’s a win-win for everyone concerned. The Georgia Conservancy has long been a proponent of reducing the levels of mercury and arsenic that emanate from coal-fired power plants.”

The federal EPA has now issued its own new mercury standard, which EPA estimates will cut power plant mercury emissions by 75 percent annually. Because of the changes it made already, Scherer will be able to meet those limits, Capp said.

But the federal deadline for meeting the new standard isn’t until 2015. Because the state moved ahead on regulating mercury, the benefits began five years earlier.

According to the Environmental Integrity Project report, power plant mercury emissions nationwide dropped from 88,650 pounds in 2001 to 53,140 pounds in 2011. But those gains were very regional, as states like Georgia and Maryland issued emissions rules while other states, like Texas, did not.

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.

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