Michigan Gov. Backs off Pledge to Cut Mercury

Published April 1, 2006

Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) is pleasing consumers but angering environmental activists by refusing to implement stringent mercury reductions she had promised prior to her election in 2002.

“Granholm has backpedaled carefully from the aggressive posture that once characterized her approach” to environmental mercury, reported the Detroit Free Press on January 21. “Michigan’s economic difficulties–cutting mercury almost certainly would mean higher electric rates–and her re-election bid this year may be factors in her cautious approach.

“The environmental benefits from mercury cuts would be years, maybe decades, away,” the newspaper report continued. “But utility rate hikes–coal-burning power plants account for 57 percent of the state’s mercury emissions–would be much more immediate, potentially triggering ratepayer anger and leaving Granholm open to attacks that she’s a barrier to business growth.”

Federal Standards Stringent

Even without any state-specific action in Michigan, industrial mercury emissions will dramatically decline in the near future in response to recently implemented federal regulations. U.S. power plants–the largest source of U.S. anthropogenic mercury emissions–must cut their mercury emissions by 70 percent by 2018.

But industrial emissions of mercury are only a small part of the total, noted Steven Milloy, an adjunct scholar with the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “Most mercury emissions are natural outgassing from ocean and terrestrial sources, and will be unaffected by regulations. Additionally, the only human health effects ever attributed to mercury have been extreme cases of mercury poisoning–such as in Japan (1950s) and Iraq (1970s)–for which conditions do not exist in the United States.”

Milloy noted, “No scientific evidence indicates that humans are at risk from mercury emissions.”

Activists Threaten Retribution

Granholm’s deference to voter sentiment and affordable energy has embittered environmental activist groups.

“I’m getting ready to put out some extremely harsh language if there’s no action on this issue within weeks,” said Lana Pollack, president of the Michigan Environmental Council, for the January 21 Free Press story. “She has a lot more to lose by pissing us off rather than pissing off people who aren’t going to vote for her anyway. If she can’t figure that out, she’s got a lot to learn.”

But Granholm’s stance is receiving support from environmental policy analysts, who point out mercury levels do not threaten human health and are declining anyway.

“In the Great Lakes, levels of mercury continue to decline,” observed Russ Harding, senior environmental analyst for the Michigan-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy, in a September 2005 essay posted on the group’s Web site. “Mercury concentrations in Great Lakes-region bald eagle feathers fell approximately 20 percent between 1985 and 2000–a telling measure, since the eagles are at the top of the Great Lakes food chain and their primary diet is fish.

“Computer modeling by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency indicates that despite the amount of mercury emitted by Michigan’s coal-fired power plants, they are responsible for less than 2 percent of the mercury deposits in northern Michigan and for less than 5 percent of the deposits in central and southern Michigan,” Harding added.

Cost Increases Averted

The Detroit News agreed. “Governor Jennifer Granholm should avoid following Illinois in pushing for single state rules to limit mercury in the atmosphere,” stated a January 12 house editorial. “Unworkable caps on emissions, if strictly enforced, would shut down Michigan’s coal-fired power plants. In turn, closures would raise the cost of electricity, reduce the state’s ability to lure industry, and shoo away even more jobs. And they would necessitate the use of more natural gas for electricity production, driving up the cost of heating homes.

“Federal officials have reasons for their number: It’s workable given existing pollution-scrubbing technology and testing accuracy,” added the Detroit News. “Health concerns are linked to eating mercury-laced fish. But nearly 80 percent of the fish that Americans eat come from overseas. So cracking down on domestic coal plants will not reduce mercury exposure any better than simply eating less fish.”

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.