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FirstEnergy asks to be excused for exceeding limits on mercury pollution in lake



FirstEnergy's Lake Shore power plant, located at 6800 South Marginal Drive (just west of East 72nd Street), operates only when demand for electricity peaks, like during a heat wave. But while its output may be sporadic, the waste it discharges into Lake Erie — particularly mercury — is an ever-present danger, say environmental activists.

"The issue is water — cleaning up our water," says Pat McKenna, a 60-year-old volunteer with the Northeast Ohio chapter of the Sierra Club. "We have one of the Great Lakes in our backyard and we can't swim in it, nor can we eat the fish out of it. We should be embarrassed enough that we should clean it up so it can be enjoyed by everyone."

That might sound alarmist — many people still do swim and fish in the lake — but activists like McKenna say they need to be louder than ever. FirstEnergy has asked the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to approve a permit that would allow the utility to continue to dump small amounts of mercury into Lake Erie. The "variance" permit would allow those amounts to exceed limits set by a federal initiative aimed to clean up the Great Lakes. The higher environmental standards were set in 1995 as part of a comprehensive clean-up plan known as the Great Lakes Initiative.

Ohio EPA officials stress that the permit would not allow the utility to increase the amount of mercury it puts in the lake. In fact, FirstEnergy has until November of this year to bring down the amount of mercury in its wastewater to 1.3 parts per trillion.

FirstEnergy has reduced the amounts of mercury in the water to between 2.3 to 2.9 parts per million trillion, says spokesman Mark Durbin. He adds that the utility company would have to spend millions of dollars to outfit the plant to meet the more stringent standard (company officials have said it could cost up to $10 million). 

"The big issue for us," says Durbin, "is that there really isn't technology that would allow us to get anywhere close to that 1.3 limit."

For environmentalists taking a long-range view, FirstEnergy's explanation isn't good enough, especially weighed against the dangers of mercury.

"Mercury is a very powerful neuro-toxicant with amazing health impact," says Chris Trepal, executive director of Cleveland-based Earth Day Coalition. "A tiny drop of mercury can have untold human-health impact. On the one hand, it's very small, but on the other hand, you don't need very much to do a lot of damage.

"We feel the impact of mercury pollution on both people and wildlife is so immeasurable that we are opposing the variance request."

Carl Skalak, who operates the Blue Pike Farm on East 72nd Street, in the shadow of the plant, says he isn't buying FirstEnergy's explanation either.

"It's much cheaper to prevent the pollution in the first place than trying to clean up the mess later," says Skalak. "Passing the costs of FirstEnergy's electric-power generation on to those of us who are not their customers, employees or shareholders is unacceptable."

The Ohio EPA will make a decision on the permit in the coming weeks. A final public hearing on the matter takes place this week, and public comment closes at the end of the month.

About 35 facilities that discharge waste into Ohio waters have similar variance permits pending, says Mike Settles of the Ohio EPA. The Lake Shore power plant is one of three located by the lake. Built in 1941, the Lake Shore plant generates 249 megawatts of electricity through the use of coal-fired boilers and steam generators.

FirstEnergy, in order to receive the permit, must adhere to other demands to reduce mercury on its facility, says Durbin. The company has changed the types of cleaning solvents it uses and has even eliminated the use of mercury thermometers.

The stricter limitations are rooted in the Great Lakes Initiative, a long-term plan by the federal EPA and Great Lake states to restore the health of the lakes. The initiative set water-quality criteria for more than two dozen pollutants, including mercury. The initiative also grants states the power to permit entities that discharge water into the lakes to exceed the criteria, at the state's discretion.

For activists, the integrity of the initiative is at stake.

In January 2008, the Government Accountability Office released a report that raised doubts about how seriously the feds and states were taking the effort. At the time, the EPA had yet to approve methods to measure some chemicals. Also, because of variances, "EPA and state officials do not know when the [Great Lakes Initiative] criteria will be met," according to a GAO statement.

Ohio EPA officials say the expectations to meet those standards exceeded the limited technology available to measure and prevent wastewater contamination.

But meeting the new standards will not only have immediate environmental impact, says Trepal; it could yield other benefits like decreased public-health costs and new environmentally sound industries and consumer products.

"How is Ohio going to survive in the coming years? What do we have to offer in terms of quality of life?" asks Trepal. "We have Lake Erie. It's our biggest asset. If we don't have clean air or clean water, people are going to go elsewhere."

The debate over the Lake Shore plant is a small battle in the ongoing effort by environmentalists to curb the use of coal. The Sierra Club and other groups scored a major victory when they fomented public pressure against a proposed coal plant in southern Ohio: In November, American Municipal Power said it had canceled plans to build a coal-fired power plant in Meigs County after cost increases and growing public outcry about its environmental impact. 

"As we make the case for moving Ohio beyond coal, we'll seek to bring this up every instance we can," says Nachy Kanfer, a Columbus-based organizer for the Sierra Club.

The mercury amounts set by the new standards may not be reasonable, considering the amount of mercury already in the lake, says Durbin. "That's anywhere between 1.2 to 1.9 ppt already [in Lake Erie], which is already in excess to what the new limit is."

Another separate but related issue is the amount of mercury discharged into the air from the plant's smokestacks in the form of fly ash. The ash may be depositing mercury into the lake, which raises questions about the reliability of data about the waters near the plant, according to Eric Nygaard, an Ohio EPA surface-water specialist.

Environmentalists have also rallied against the Lake Shore plant because of concerns for poorer residents in the surrounding neighborhood. The plant is located near the Superior-St. Clair and Glenville neighborhoods, enclaves of mostly black residents with poverty rates hovering around 40 percent, according to Case Western Reserve's NEO CANDO database.

McKenna, the local activist, says she and other volunteers walked door-to-door last winter to alert residents of FirstEnergy's variance application. The news elicited strong responses from some residents.

"We had people in tears going 'What?'," says McKenna. "They were devastated by the news. A lot of these people are very poor and many of them — not all of them — depend on the fish [they catch] to stay alive. They feel as though they can't do anything about it. It's enough for them to keep alive, much less fight the Ohio EPA or FirstEnergy."

Fishermen who recently braved the frigid January weather to try their luck at Gordon Park had a variety of views.

Area resident Michael Smith downplayed the notion that fishing is a last-resort option for poor families, but conceded that many local people regularly catch and eat steelhead trout, blue gill, rock bass, perch, catfish and walleye. He says he eats his catch once a week and estimates that three out of 10 neighbors make fresh fish part of their diet.

The problem in Smith's eyes is the lack of information about pollutants for fishermen. While reminders are printed on fishing licenses, the state could do a better job of informing people about toxic chemicals in the water, he says. For most fishermen, he says, "It's out of sight, out of mind. If [the state] put out a sign saying there's mercury in the water, then they'd worry about it."

Fishing buddies Alex Glenn and David Cunningham, both of Cleveland, culled small silver minnows out of an effluent waterway between FirstEnergy's Lake Shore power plant and icy Lake Erie. Both men said they share concerns about toxins, even as they dropped the small bait fish into a five-gallon bucket.

Glenn says he fillets fat from his fish to avoid the laundry list of maladies activists and scientists associate with mercury: stunted development and mental retardation, fertility problems, and blood and heart illnesses.

The lake "is a natural resource like no other," says Glenn. "It belongs to our grandchildren's children."

The time for public input on this issue is lapsing. The Ohio EPA is hosting a meeting at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, January 21, at the Horizon Science Academy, 6000 South Marginal Drive. Comments can also be mailed to the Ohio EPA, Division of Surface Water, Permits Processing Unit, P.O. Box 1049, Columbus 43216-1049. Ohio EPA will stop taking submissions January 28.

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