Mercury Contamination Poisoning Louisiana Anglers

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Louisiana Sportsman Magazine investigates the presence of Mercury found in some Louisiana bodies of water and the effects this will have on Louisiana anglers. This story may be printed for FREE in any print publication. The tagline must be printed along with the story.

Mercury contamination has become a major battle cry nationwide for environmental groups. With some of the highest mercury emissions in the U.S., Louisiana is at the forefront of this controversy.

Industry giants, the chlorine-making plants and coal-fired power plants, contend that their mercury releases are within the legal limits, and are low enough not to affect public health.

National environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council dispute this, claiming there is evidence that the chlor-alkali plants are underreporting the amount of mercury they are releasing into the environment. They also claim that the mercury released from these plants is raising the concentrations in our waterways to dangerous levels.

“There have been significant discharges of mercury over the last 50 years, and that’s the mercury that’s in the soil,” says Barry Kohl, geologist at Tulane University and chair of the New Orleans Audubon council.

Among the biggest offenders in amount of mercury released into the air are Louisiana’s two Pioneer America chlor-alkali plants, one in Lake Charles and one in St. Gabriel.

Only nine such plants that use mercury in their chlorine-making process are still operating in the U.S. The rest have switched to a much cleaner process that does not use mercury.

Most of the chlor-alkali plants like the ones still operating in Louisiana were closed down.

“Two plants in Alabama, one in North Carolina and one in Texas have been closed down and are now superfund sites,” Kohl said.

In Louisiana, the Pioneer America chlor-alkali plants have been given a free ride.

Louisiana’s two plants report discharging two tons of mercury into the air every year. They could be releasing much more according to an article published by The Washington Post last June.

“Each year (chlor-alkali) plants buy massive amounts of mercury — in 2002 it totaled more than 100 tons — to replace the amount they lose in production,” stated the article.

That would leave over 20 tons of mercury unaccounted for in the Louisiana plants in just one year.

“Over 50 percent of the mercury from these plants falls within a 10- to 20-mile radius of the plant. The rest drifts with the wind,” says Kohl, who also holds conservation chair of the Sierra Club in New Orleans.

Kohl says mercury emissions from these plants are responsible for poisoning 29 Louisiana waterways, including fishing hotspots like the Atchafalaya Basin.

This is a concern for everybody who enjoys fishing, and eating their catch, because once the mercury gets into the water, it can take hundreds of years to get out.

Kohl said that most of the other chlor-alkali plants in the U.S. have converted to the diaphragm process, which does not use mercury at all and is much cleaner. But Louisiana has not required its plants to do this.

Coal-fired power plants are another major source of mercury pollution, both nationally and statewide. Louisiana has four such power plants, the biggest being Big Cajun 2 in Pointe Coupee. Together they emit 900 pounds of mercury into the air each year.

Mercury emissions from these plants are currently completely unregulated by the state. Environmental groups are urging federal decision-makers to require power plants to reduce their mercury pollution by 90 percent, and ultimately move away from polluting sources of power altogether.

Gas-pressure meters are another source of mercury that could be getting into Louisiana’s waterways. These meters, used to measure the amount of gas running through pipelines, have about 8 pounds of mercury each. Some of these meters have been in the field since the early 1900s.

There are an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 meters in Louisiana. At many of these sites, the mercury has leaked into the ground underneath the meters.

The DEQ has known about possible contamination issues with the meters since 1992, when extremely high mercury levels in fish in the Ouachita River occurred suspiciously close to 8,000 meters in the nearby Monroe gas field.

State officials at that time issued warnings to residents of Louisiana and Arkansas in areas around the Ouachita to drastically limit their consumption of fish from the river.

Since that discovery 12 years ago, the Department of Environmental Quality has issued only a voluntary clean-up of these sites by the gas companies.

El Paso Gas, a company that owns many of the gas-transmission pipelines in the state, is currently working with DEQ to clean up their sites. Other gas companies have not followed suit.

Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s administration has begun a mercury initiative that has opened the door for an investigation into the mercury pollution problem. By the beginning of 2005, they hope to present a mercury action plan.

“The fact they’re having meetings open to the public, which has never been done before … because of that I think this administration is really trying to change things,” said Kohl.

By: Ann Taylor, Louisiana Sportsman Magazine

Louisiana Sportsman Magazine brings the outdoors indoors by providing readers with the most up-to-the-minute hunting and fishing news found anywhere across the state. Subscribe today: 800-538-4355.

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