Coal's Other Major Pollutant: Mercury

This post is co-written by Greg Haegele and Bruce Nilles, Director of the Sierra Club's National Coal Campaign.

When we talk about coal-fired power plants, the discussion usually revolves around their massive emissions of global warming pollution. Yet these plants also emit many other toxic pollutants – including mercury.

So you can imagine our happiness two weeks ago when a federal judge rejected Duke Energy's attempts to build its new Cliffside coal-fired power plant  in North Carolina without modern mercury and other pollution controls. This is the latest federal court to find that Duke Energy and its CEO Jim Rogers are simply refusing to comply with the law.The ruling means that Duke must go back to the regulators and agree to limit the mercury emissions from its Cliffside plant. As the first coal plant sent back to the drawing board after the D.C. Court of Appeals tossed out the do-nothing Bush administration mercury rules earlier this year, this case sets a precedent .

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, coal-fired power plants are the largest industrial source of mercury pollution in the country. Mercury is a neurotoxin that has already contaminated water bodies in all 50 states. Also according to EPA , more than one in six women have already consumed so much mercury-contaminated fish that it threatens any children they may have.

Duke's planned Cliffside coal plant was the latest in a string of plants across the U.S. lacking modern mercury controls. The Sierra Club is fighting these plants, including an action we took action earlier this year to make 30 plants go back and tighten their mercury emissions .

There are affordable controls for mercury – even the EPA has said as much in its own estimates. And isn't it fairer [[more fair]] that utilities pay for the cost of polluting instead of having parents dealing with the cost of children born with the neurological defects associated with mercury-laden fish?

Most important, though, we need to move beyond coal to clean, renewable energy sources over the next decade. There is no such thing as clean coal . It is filthy, it is destructive when mined, it is poisonous when burned and it contaminates ground water when the coal ash is land-filled.  Not so with investments in energy efficiency, wind, solar and geothermal power.

Image credit:Home&Garden; Network, Liquid Mercury Metal

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