Michigan has just announced new statewide rules to significantly limit mercury emissions from power plants. While the rules aren’t ideal, they are a significant victory on a critically important environmental and public health issue. Mike Shriberg, Policy Director of the Ecology Center, has worked on this issue for many years, going back to his former work with Environment Michigan. Mike was kind enough to offer this guest post on the new mercury emission rules.
In 2002, then-gubernatorial candidate Jennifer Granholm pledged to “support the phaseout and elimination of mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants.” In 2006, when running for reelection, Governor Granholm directed the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality “to reduce mercury emissions from electric utilities by 90 percent by 2015” stating “It is unacceptable that in a state where fishing contributes over $2 billion to the economy annually, we must warn people not to eat the fish that they catch in our beautiful lakes because of mercury contamination.” Finally, 7 years and countless hours of advocacy later, the MDEQ announced this week that it has finalized rules requiring power plants to reduce mercury pollution 90% by 2015, making Michigan the 19th state to regulate mercury from power plants. (See press coverage from the AP here.)
The science on mercury could not be clearer. We’ve known for centuries that mercury is a major threat to public health, especially children’s health. Even the Governor stated “mercury is a potent neurotoxin that threatens the health of Michigan families, children, and nursing mothers.” Mercury, simply put, causes brain damage as well as a host of other neurological problems (such as vision and memory impairment). And Michigan is particularly hard hit, with mercury warnings in all 11,000 inlands lakes and the entire Great Lakes shoreline, and 10,000 – 20,000 babies born each year with significantly elevated mercury levels.
We also know that the greatest source of mercury in the state is coal-fired power plants, releasing approximately 4,000 pounds in the base year of 1999. So, you would think that a 90% reduction would mean 3,600 less pounds of mercury per year by 2015. Not so - this is the upside down world of Lansing politics, after all. Unfortunately, the mercury rule is riddled with loopholes, off-ramps, exemptions and extensions, likely resulting in an actual reduction of only 77%, according to DEQ’s own estimates. These problems with the rules – which environmental and conservation groups fought vigorously to stop – include allowing utilities to calculate mercury reductions based on the mercury content in the coal (as opposed to mercury coming out of the smokestack, which is what actually impacts people), requiring only 75% reductions if power plants reduce other pollutants significantly, exempt smaller plants, and allow extensions for economic hardship or technological breakdowns. These comments from the major environmental and conservation groups in the state outline these problems in more detail.
Why isn’t a 90% reduction a 90% reduction? The answer is the politics of power in Lansing. The utilities wield an exorbitant amount of influence on our policy makers and regulators, with the halls of Lansing crawling with utility lobbyists and staffers. For example, the utilities literally share an office with our Public Service Commission, who is supposed to be overseeing them in the name of the public interest. The public interest advocates do not have the resources – and certainly not the money – to continually win against the utilities’ lobbying might on mercury or any other issue. To me, it’s a prime example of the corruption of money in politics. What particularly galls me in this otherwise typical case of special interest politics is that it’s your money – your utility bills for which you have no real choice of companies – that’s paying to work against your interests in clean energy and a healthy environment (not to mention reasonable rates).
The positive bottom-line is that these rules, while certainly flawed, are a major step forward and help fill the void left by the vacated Bush-era pitifully-weak federal rule. Even if we only reach the predicted 77% reductions, that’s still nearly 3,000 pounds less of mercury in our air and water every year – no small accomplishment for our health and environment. And, it’s entirely due to the tireless work of the environmental and conservation community – led by the Michigan Environmental Council, Environment Michigan, PIRGIM, Michigan United Conservation Clubs, the National Wildlife Federation and Ecology Center, with strong support from Clean Water Action, Sierra Club, Michigan League of Conservation Voters and many others. The tactics ranged from pressure to cajoling, and lobbying to deep policy analysis. Personally, this was the first campaign I engaged in and helped lead after returning to Michigan as an environmental advocate over 5 years ago, so it’s particularly sweet to have a tangible accomplishment that directly impacts Michiganders’ lives – something all too rare in policy advocacy.