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Mercury: Too Toxic to Ignore

What do San Francisco Bay, Puget Sound, and Chesapeake Bay have in common? They provide a distinctive signature to some of America's greatest cities, of course. Residents and visitors to San Francisco, Seattle, Baltimore and Washington love to walk along, play beside, and boat across these waters. All three have storied histories and strong citizens' organizations fighting to protect and restore them.

But they have another, shameful thing in common. These waters all bear warnings about eating fish, because polluted waters have contaminated the fish. Extra restrictions are in effect for children and women of child-bearing age.

The contaminants? One is mercury, which builds up in fish that people love to eat, local fish and ocean fish. Striped bass, king mackerel, tuna, smallmouth bass, swordfish. Tiny amounts of mercury in the water lead to toxic levels in fish and can cause neurological and developmental problems in people who eat the fish. One woman of child-bearing age out of every twelve already has enough mercury in her body to put her baby at risk of birth defects.

Where does the mercury come from? Some from natural sources and old industrial wastes lodged in underwater sediments. These days, however, the mercury comes mostly from burning coal. Coal burned in power plants and cement kilns is the biggest source of mercury building up in our waters and in fish that we eat.

In Cupertino, California, close to San Francisco Bay and several neighborhoods, the Hanson Permanente Cement plant releases the third most mercury of any cement plant in the nation, 500 pounds of mercury a year. Right beside the bridge between Seattle and West Seattle, next to city neighborhoods and Puget Sound, cement plants operated by Ash Grove and LaFarge may emit as much as 90 pounds of mercury a year.

We don't have to live like this. Mercury from power plants and cement kilns can be controlled. Our Clean Air Act says mercury must be controlled. Industry knows how to do it. But for decades, EPA has failed to require it.

Here at Earthjustice, we and our allies have been fighting the coal and cement industries, plus the EPA and the White House, over mercury pollution. This spring we won a major victory forcing the EPA to address mercury from power plants, and all over the country new power plants are now having to design in effective mercury removal.

The story on cement plants has been particularly tortured. We have had to sue the EPA four times since 1997 to force the agency to finally commit to adopting mercury controls for cement. Until recently, EPA didn't even make a serious effort to find out how much mercury the cement plants release. The pressure of the lawsuits caused EPA to require information about releases in 2007. What came in revealed that cement plants release twice as much mercury as EPA had previously estimated—23,000 pounds a year. Just a teaspoon of mercury can contaminate a lake. That's a lot of teaspoons and a lot of polluted lakes.

Last week, Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project released a report based on the new data on cement plant emissions. You can find it here. We recommend specific policy changes, and most importantly we urge prompt adoption of effective mercury controls. You can help: go to, learn more, and let the EPA and your state regulators know how you feel about mercury from the cement plant near you.