Mercury falling

April 4, 2006

From Massachusetts, some cheerful news, reported in the April 3 Boston Globe: Mercury down 32% in fish near Mass. incinerators.

The Bay State passed regs in 1998 shutting down incinerators that didn’t properly scrub mercury from their smoke. Perch are a signature species because they accumulate mercury more effectively than other fish. For perch in waters near the incinerators, mercury levels have declined 32% in seven years, half the way to edible levels. Elsewhere in the commonwealth, levels have declined by 12%. The expectation had been that it would take as long for the metal to clear out of biosystems as it took to build up, but it turns out the stuff flushes out far faster than anyone had hoped.

The new measurements prove two things: first, that we do have effective means for cleaning up mercury. The battle is very winnable. And second, because of the sharp variation between sites close to incinerators and the sites far away, we have learned that mercury does indeed accumulate in “hot spots”. That’s some heavy ammo against the Bush EPA’s plans to control mercury using emissions trading alone. (Emissions trading works well with pollutants that are widely dispersed, because every locale gets the benefit of cleanup at any other locale. When the pollutant doesn’t travel, the dirtiest spots can remain as dirty as ever.)

The Bush EPA, of course, has reacted with a resounding call for further study. Astoundingly, it also asserts that if we have proof that mercury accumulates locally around hot spots, that argues in favor of emissions trading. Why? Because the dirtiest spots will get the biggest payment when they clean up and sell their emissions, so they’ll have the biggest incentive to clean up. Set aside the fact that this line of argument is unaffected one way or another by the presence of hot spots. Has it not occurred to these clowns that you can’t calculate incentives by asking about income, without asking about expenses? That the dirtiest spots are also the most expensive to clean? These are the folks who brought you a “Clear Skies Act” whose purpose was to clear the skies of breathable air. They would never be disingenous, would they?


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