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

NAFTA Secretariat recommends investigation of US mercury emissions

For only the second time in its 11-year history, the NAFTA Commission for Environmental Cooperation announced today that it intends to launch an investigation into the US government’s failure to enforce its environmental laws. Following a complaint submitted by a coalition of Canadian and American environmental groups late last year, the CEC Secretariat formally recommended that an investigation be launched into allegations that the US government is failing to uphold provisions of the Clean Water Act concerning emissions of mercury from coal fired power plants, and thus is in violation of both United States and international law.

Canada’s Sierra Legal Defence Fund and Waterkeeper Alliance filed the complaint with the CEC, demanding an investigation into the dramatic increase in mercury contamination of thousands of lakes and rivers across the US in the past decade, including shared waterbodies like the Great Lakes. The groups allege that the US Environmental Protection Agency’s failure to enforce provisions of the Clean Water Act has led to degradation of these water bodies and caused widespread fish consumption restrictions.

“Under President Bush, the EPA has become simply a taxpayer funded industry lobbyist group, working hard everyday to strip environmental protections from the American people,” said Scott Edwards, Legal Director of Waterkeeper Alliance. “The CEC Secretariat’s decision is a welcome step towards ensuring that the US government acts to protect the health of our waterways and at-risk mothers and children in the US and Canada.”

After mercury is released into the air by coal-fired power plants it finds its way into lakes, rivers and coastal waters where it is converted to methylmercury, its most toxic form. Mercury has been linked to neurological damage in children and may contribute to heart disease and autoimmune deficiencies in adults. Pregnant women and their foetuses 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 over half a million babies at risk.

“US coal-fired power plants are the largest source of mercury emissions in North America, spewing 48 tons each year,” said Dr. Elaine MacDonald with Sierra Legal in Toronto. “The CEC’s investigation will highlight the connection between mercury emissions from power plants and the thousands of mercury contaminated water bodies and ensure that the EPA cannot continue to ignore the impact of toxic air pollutants on water quality.”

Recently, the EPA enacted a regulation that places minimal restrictions on power plant mercury emissions at the expense of public health and in violation of the Clean Air Act. Several environmental groups, including Waterkeeper Alliance, are currently challenging EPA’s illegal actions in a US federal court. In the past decade, the number of US states issuing warnings against eating fish because of mercury poisoning jumped from 27 to 45. One third of all US lakes and hundreds of thousands of river miles are affected by these advisories today.

The CEC was formed under a side agreement to NAFTA and acts as a watchdog to ensure that each of the member countries enforces its environmental laws. The CEC Council, composed of the Environment Ministers of Canada, US and Mexico, must now decide if it will accept the Secretariat’s recommendation for an investigation.

The coalition of petitioners includes: Friends of the Earth Canada, Friends of the Earth-U.S., Earthroots, Centre for Environmentally Sustainable Development, Great Lakes United, Pollution Probe, Waterkeeper Alliance, Sierra Club (U.S. and Canada).

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