Posted on January 13, 2010 (updated: January 13, 2010)

International Commission Calls for Answers from US on Mercury Emissions

NAFTA’s Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) has formally requested a response from the US government to allegations that its failure to enforce provisions of the US Clean Water Act against coal-fired power plants violates international agreements. A coalition of American and Canadian environmental groups filed a complaint with the CEC in September 2004, demanding an investigation into the dramatic increase in mercury contamination of US lakes and rivers in the past decade, including U.S.-Canada border areas. Waterkeeper Alliance and Canada’s Sierra Legal Defence Fund alleged that the US Environmental Protection Agency’s failure to enforce the law has led to degradation of water bodies and widespread fish consumption restrictions.

“The Bush Administration is allowing coal plants to use our waterways as toxic waste dumps and simply refuses to effectively enforce the Clean Water Act against these polluters,” said Scott Edwards, Legal Director of the Waterkeeper Alliance. “The CEC’s decision to seek a response from the government is the first step towards ensuring that the government finally acts to protect the health of our waterways and at-risk mothers and children in the US and Canada.”

US coal-fired power plants are the largest source of mercury emissions in North America, spewing 48 tons annually. In the past decade, the number of US states issuing warnings against eating fish because of mercury poisoning jumped from 27 to 45. Over the same period, the number of mercury related Fish Consumption Advisories issued for specific water bodies more than doubled. One third of all US lakes and hundreds of thousands of river miles are affected by these advisories today. A Bush Administration proposal to regulate mercury has faced widespread criticism for allowing industry to continue to emit massive amounts of the poisonous contaminant beyond 2018 and to avoid installing available control technologies.

“Of course, it will be disturbing for parents and expectant mothers in both Canada and the US to be reminded that their children’s health is being threatened by mercury contamination,” said Albert Koehl, a Staff Lawyer with Sierra Legal in Toronto. “In the long run, however, this crucial step by NAFTA’s environmental commission may someday allow children to grow up in a clean and safe environment.”

Mercury released into the air by coal plants finds its way into lakes, rivers, and coastal waters where it is converted to methylmercury, its most toxic form. Mercury has been tied to neurological damage in children and may contribute to heart disease and autoimmune deficiencies in adults. Pregnant women and their fetuses are particularly vulnerable. A recent EPA analysis estimated that one in six women of childbearing age has mercury levels in her blood high enough to put her baby at risk. Mercury from hundreds of coal-fired plants in the US (principally in the Ohio Valley) has been linked to mercury contamination of Canadian waters. In the Province of Ontario, 98% of all fish consumption restrictions for inland lakes are due to mercury contamination. It is estimated that approximately 38% of mercury deposition in the Canadian portion of the Great Lakes originates from US sources.

The Commission for Environmental Cooperation, an environmental watchdog agency created under NAFTA, investigates and reports on countries that fail to enforce their environmental laws, and thereby gain a trade advantage. The US government has 30 days to respond to the allegations. The CEC Secretariat, based in Montreal, will then determine whether an international investigation is warranted.

The coalition of petitioners includes:

Friends of the Earth Canada
Friends of the Earth-U.S.
Centre for Environmentally Sustainable Development
Great Lakes United
Pollution Probe
Waterkeeper Alliance
Sierra Club (U.S. and Canada)

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