Archive for December, 2011

Drawing of Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter by John Tenniel

By Stefanie Herweck

The lunacy of the Mad Hatter, pouring tea and posing riddles about ravens and writing desks, has entertained Americans since Disney (and later Johnny Depp) brought him to the silver screen.  Lewis Carroll’s character arose from the phrase “mad as a hatter,” which was commonly heard in 1865, when Alice in Wonderland was first published.

At that time mercury was used to cure felt for hats, and mercury exposure caused hatmakers to exhibit confused speech, distorted vision, twitching limbs, muscle tremors, extreme excitability, and hallucinations.

Despite this obvious impact on human health, it wasn’t until the latter half of the 20th century that the United States and other countries enacted regulations to limit mercury exposure, both in workplaces like the hatters’ and the population at large.

Since then studies have shown that even low levels of mercury can harm the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs, and immune system.  It can also harm the developing nervous system of unborn and young children and cause learning disabilities.

Ingesting just over one-tenth of an ounce of mercury can kill a 150 pound adult.

Now that we recognize that mercury is a powerful neurotoxin with devastating effects on human health, it should be a no-brainer—we should do everything we can to keep mercury out of the environment, so that we can keep it out of human bodies.

But that has not been happening.  In the United States coal-fired power plants are by far the largest source of mercury pollution, and they have been allowed to continue to spew huge amounts of poisonous mercury: each year they emit 48 tons.  The mercury that pours from their smokestacks falls to the earth when it rains, where it enters our rivers and lakes.  There it is converted to methylmercury, which is an organic form of mercury that accumulates in the bodies of fish, as well as the bodies of humans who eat the fish or drink the contaminated water.

The alarming results of this are found in study after study.  One in twelve pregnant women has high enough mercury levels in her body to harm her fetus.  As many as 300,000 babies per year are at increased risk of learning disabilities as a result of prenatal mercury exposure.  The risk of autismin children goes up in relation to their home’s proximity to a coal plant.

Texans are particularly vulnerable to the damaging effects of the poison since Texas emits more mercury than any other state.

Sierra Club Mercury Ad

Coal-fired power companies like Luminant Energy, owner of the dirtiest power plants in the state, have given generously to Governor Perry’s campaigns over the years, and he has done everything in his power to return the favor.

Rather than working to protect Texans’ health and our environment, Perry’s appointees at the Texas Council on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) have helped power plants get around environmental regulations and fast-track new construction.  Last year TCEQ was found to have violated the law to help the Las Brisas coal plant look as though it would be in compliance with the Clean Air Act when it applied for a permit.

As a result of Perry and the TCEQ working on behalf of polluters instead of the people, coal-fired plants in Texas spewed out 16,350 pounds of toxic mercury pollution in 2009 alone.

But this month the Obama administration could finally bring Texans the clean air and clean water they deserve.  Scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have revised air-quality standards to comply with the Clean Air Act and limit the amount of toxins such as mercury that power plants can emit.  The proposed standards would require coal-fired power plants to reduce emissions of mercury by 91 percent, hydrochloric acid by 91 percent and particulate matter by 55 percent.  It is up to President Obama to confirm these new standards and keep these deadly poisons out of our air, our water, and our bodies.

The power industry fought to block these safeguards for decades, and worked closely with the Bush administration to set standards illegally low.  This past September Republicans in the US House of Representatives passed a bill aimed at delaying restrictions on power plants’ mercury emissions.  Ignoring the health benefits, they said the regulations would cost too much.  Thankfully, the Senate has not taken up this assault on public health.

It is up to President Obama to ignore the pressure, and the money, of industry lobbyists and finally put the health of our children ahead of coal companies’ profits.  The question is not the cost of electricity; it is who pays the cost.  Dirty coal may produce a kilowatt of electricity more cheaply than clean energy technologies, but the difference in price is paid at the doctor’s office, and in the suffering of children who live with neurological damage and learning disabilities brought on by mercury poisoning.

For too long the United States, and especially the state of Texas, has sacrificed the health of our children for cheap energy and coal industry profits.  It is time for President Obama to bring an end to this madness, stand up for our children, and enact strong mercury regulations.

Stefanie Herweck is chair of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club.  She lives in McAllen.


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There is a bit of good news for South Texas coastal residents and all who are concerned about the ecological health of the Gulf.  The Army Corps of Engineers recently announced that the 500- turbine offshore wind farm proposed for sites off Padre Island National Seashore and South Padre Island by Baryonyx Corporation will be the subject of a full Environmental Impact Statement.  This means that South Texans will be able to learn more details about the project and its impacts.  We will also have the opportunity to make our voices heard at public hearings and by submitting comments.   

 Wind generation can play a key role in weaning America off of its addiction to fossil fuels like oil and coal, both of which pollute our nation’s air and water and contribute to global climate change.  2011 has been one of the hottest years on record, and Arctic sea ice is at the lowest level ever recorded.  The United States consumes around 20% of the world’s energy, even though we only comprise about 4% of the world’s population, so our decisions about what sources of energy we use will have a tremendous impact.

But as we move away from coal and oil we need to make certain that we are not simply trading one type of damage for another.  Wind generation does not emit any greenhouse gases, but turbines in the wrong place using the wrong design have the potential to do serious harm. 

Our South Texas coastline represents a critical section of the Central Flyway, which funnels many millions of birds on their annual migrations.  This is one reason that Padre Island has been designated a Globally Important Bird Area by the American Bird Conservancy and a Site of International Importance by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. 

Migratory birds and bats follow the coastline using the same wind currents that the proposed wind farm would harness.  Other migratory species fly at higher altitude across the Gulf of Mexico and then “fall out” when they reach the shore.  Depending on the location of turbines, their heights and configuration, flocks of birds that either follow the coastline or “fall out” could become disoriented by lights atop the turbines and forced to maneuver through a forest of spinning blades.   

In addition to birds, Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles, one of the world’s most critically endangered sea turtle species, rely on the area that this project will impact.  Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles return to the barrier islands’ beaches from late April through mid-July to dig nests and lay eggs.  The placement of hundreds of turbines anchored in the seabed may interfere with adults attempting to reach the shore to nest, and be an obstacle for baby turtles as they head out to sea.  The turtles are believed to find their way back to their nesting beaches by sensing the Earth’s magnetic field.  There are concerns that the turbines’ electrical transmission lines, buried just three feet under the seabed and running to power stations onshore, could interfere with the turtles’ ability to navigate to the beaches.   

South Texas, with its ample wind and sunny days, can have an important role to play in the development of renewable energy and weaning the U.S. off of fossil fuels.  But we need to ensure that such developments are sensitive our other natural resources: our wild lands, wild seas and wildlife.  The wind project Baryonyx Corporation has proposed is unprecedented.  Texans need to be active participants in determining whether or not this project is right for the Gulf Coast.

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