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Susan Collins

Tracking and Reducing Harmful Mercury
By Senator Susan M. Collins
May 18, 2007 - 6:59:03 PM

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Sen. Susan Collins represents the state of Maine in the U.S. Senate.
Mercury is one of the most persistent and dangerous environmental pollutants that threatens our state and our nation. This powerful toxin affects the senses, the brain, spinal cord, kidneys and liver. It is particularly harmful to children and pregnant women, causing an elevated risk of birth defects and problems with motor skills.

It is persistent and prevalent. Currently, 40 states have fish consumption advisories due to mercury contamination. Maine is among those states -- every freshwater lake, river, and stream in our beautiful state is subject to a mercury advisory warning pregnant women and young children to limit consumption of fish caught in these waters. While this advisory is bad enough for the many anglers who love to fish Maine waters, it is especially difficult for indigenous peoples like those of the Penobscot Indian Nation for whom subsistence fishing is an important part of their culture. In addition, mercury levels in Maine fish, loons, and eagles are among the highest in North America.

During my service in the Senate, I have made reducing this threat to our people and our wildlife one of my high priorities. In 2002, the Senate unanimously passed my legislation to ban the sale of mercury fever thermometers, the source of some 17 tons of mercury to solid waste every year. In 2005, I led the fight to overturn a flawed Environmental Protection Agency regulation that allows coal-fired power plants -- the single largest source of mercury pollution -- to continue to emit unsafe levels of this toxin into the environment.

That fight continues. In the two years since, it has become clear that the EPA regulation is flawed because the science behind it is flawed. Good public policy must be based upon good information, and that is not the case here.

The extent of the flaws in the EPA data became apparent earlier this year with the publication of several new studies. These studies, by the Biodiversity Research Institute in Gorham, Maine, as well as by researchers at Syracuse University, demonstrate the existence of mercury "hotspots" -- places with elevated mercury levels -- in the northeastern United States and attribute much of the cause of these hotspots to emissions from power plants. One such hot spot is in central Maine, at the headwaters of the Androscoggin and Kennebec rivers.

These studies conflict markedly with EPA's computer modeling data which was used to justify the EPA mercury rule. For example, the new studies show that mercury contamination is five times higher than previously estimated near a coal plant in southern New Hampshire. These studies demonstrate the need for real-world mercury measurements -- not just computer models.

In order to obtain these real-world measurements, I have joined with Senators Joe Lieberman and Hillary Clinton to introduce the Comprehensive National Mercury Monitoring Act. This bipartisan legislation would create a comprehensive new program to measure mercury levels across the United States. I was pleased last week to join some of our nation's most esteemed scientists to present testimony on this crucial issue at a hearing by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Through this program, mercury monitoring sites would be established across the nation to measure mercury levels in the air, rain, soil, lakes and streams, and in plants and animals. I am convinced that the new measurements provided by this legislation will form the scientific basis for a new mercury rule which adequately protects human health and environment.  This conviction is backed up by a report last year by the EPA's own Inspector General which stated that "without field data from an improved monitoring network, EPA's ability to advance mercury science will be limited and 'utility-attributable' hotspots that pose health risks may occur and go undetected."

Discussions of mercury pollution often focus on such numbers as tons of emissions and parts-per-billion of contamination. To me, the number that matters most, the number that compels us to take decisive action is this: every year, more than 600,000 American children are born with unsafe levels of mercury in their blood. This threat to the children of today and to the generations to come must be addressed. The legislation I have introduced will provide the information needed to do so.

If you are interested in receiving future updates on this or other priority issues before the Senate, and if you have not already done so, I encourage you to go to and sign up for my Enewsletter.

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