Blue mussels along almost the entire coast of Maine contain mercury levels that appear to be abnormally high for North America. The mud underlying the Upper Penobscot Estuary contains mercury levels 260 times higher than those in Boothbay Harbor, the next highest site in the state. Sediments in lakes near Orrington may contain more mercury than anywhere else in the nation.
A new report on mercury in Maine released by the Department of Environmental Protection and the state’s Land and Water Resource Council this week says that while much of the science remains uncertain, the state knows enough about mercury’s effects on environmental and human health to warrant taking action.
“What we found in looking at fish and wildlife and sediments is that there are levels that are elevated in the state that are really a cause for concern,” said Ned Sullivan, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection. “And that’s why we say there’s a need for action, for us to go after reductions of the major sources in the state and throughout the region and the country.”
The report concludes that Maine’s environment now contains enough mercury to cause possible problems with bald eagle reproduction and potentially to damage the way ecosystems function. The state for years has warned that women who are or who plan to become pregnant and children should limit or eliminate the amount of fish they eat from all of Maine’s inland waters.
It also outlines a 10-point strategy to address those concerns, which Sullivan said is likely to be reflected in DEP-sponsored legislation later this session.
The report emphasized completing a comprehensive inventory of mercury sources in the state and ranking the risks posed by those sources, reducing mercury released into the air or as solid waste, and eliminating mercury released into state waters.
Another key recommendation is that the state expand its program to test for mercury in fish — a move that could let anglers stop worrying about eating their catches from specific water bodies.
Only 150 of the state’s 6,000 lakes and ponds have undergone such tests. Because researchers could find no pattern to explain why a particular lake did or did not have unhealthy levels of the heavy metals, health officials warned the public to limit consumption of fish from every water body in the state.
“If we did more sampling, we might be able to open up some of our lakes to less restricted or unrestricted fishing,” Sullivan said. “So there’s kind of a silver lining here in that respect.”
Most of the mercury Maine emits into the environment goes into the air. Although some of the numbers are under dispute, Maine put an estimated 2,786 pounds of the heavy metal into the air in 1992.
HoltraChem Manufacturing of Orrington, which historically emitted the most mercury into Maine’s air, says it has reduced its airborne emissions by 75 percent since 1992 and now releases less than all the wood stoves in Maine. Sullivan says those numbers have not been verified by his staff.
The state produces hundreds of thousands of pounds of mercury-contaminated garbage each year, but all is sent out of state.
Water releases of mercury account for the smallest portion of Maine’s mercury picture. Exempted from a 1971 law that prohibited mercury emissions into state waters, HoltraChem now releases 6 pounds of mercury into the Penobscot River each year under the only such permit issued by the state.
The report also recommends emphasizing remediation efforts to prevent accidental releases, such as several that have occured at the aging HoltraChem facility in the last two years.
Efforts to eliminate HoltraChem’s exemption are likely to be the most contentious issue the Legislature will face as it reviews the report and acts on its recommendations.
“I know that’s going to be controversial,” Sullivan said.
When the Land and Water Resources Council considered the report Monday and passed it along to the Legislature, a team of players from the Orrington facility were on hand to ask for changes and to state their opposition.
Bruce Davis, the company’s president, repeatedly has said he will shut down the plant, which employs 70 people, if the state forces HoltraChem to switch to a mercury-free process. He charged that key studies in the report were flawed and called the report’s conclusions biased.
Sullivan defended the need to cut back on Maine’s emissions as much as possible, especially since the state will likely find itself lobbying for cuts in other states that send their airborne mercury here.
“We want to have clean hands so that when we push for regional and national control on utilities and other industrial sources, we have the moral authority to call for aggressive reductions there,” he said.