Chesterton Tribune

State of Indiana halts mercury monitoring

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana’s environmental agency has pulled funding for a statewide network that monitors air and water for mercury as part of budget cuts that activists say will hinder efforts to track the toxic metal.

The move shuttered five precipitation monitoring stations that had been part of a national string of more than 100 precipitation-collection monitors. The scientist who oversees that network believes Indiana’s five stations are the most ever closed by a state.

“It’s a shock to our system — it’s left a big hole in the Midwest,” said Dr. David Gay, coordinator of the National Atmospheric Deposition Program, a scientific cooperative with more than 200 federal, state and university partners.

Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that accumulates in the food chain and can pose a threat to humans who eat fish tainted with the metal. It poses its greatest threat to the developing brains and nervous systems of small children, said Jodi Perras, executive director of Improving Kids’ Environment, an Indianapolis-based group that first learned of the monitoring station shutdowns.

“It’s not just an environmental issue — it’s definitely a health issue, an issue that effects us all,” Perras said.

The primary source of mercury in the environment is industry, particularly coal-burning power plants like those that Indiana relies on for more than 95 percent of its electricity.

The state’s five precipitation monitors, in place since 2000, have recorded some of the highest mercury levels in rain and snowfall in the nationwide network. And many of Indiana’s waterways are listed as “impaired” because of mercury and other pollutants in their waters.

Activists from six Indiana environmental and conservation groups urged the Indiana Department of Environmental Management in a recent letter to restore the $285,000 needed to operate the five precipitation monitoring stations and another 25 stream monitoring stations that aren’t part of Gay’s network. Without them, they said, Indiana won’t be able to track mercury levels under new regulations to control mercury emissions from power plants that the Obama administration is developing.

IDEM spokesman Rob Elstro said the agency’s decision to end its joint funding agreement with the U.S. Geological Survey will help “offset the state’s reduced income.” Gov. Mitch Daniels has made repeated requests for state agencies to cut their budgets due to sluggish state revenue.

Elstro said IDEM could not find alternative funding sources for the monitors, which last recorded data in December and January.

USGS scientist Martin Risch said the agency had proposed contributing $285,000 to continue monitoring at the 30 stations this year, and that IDEM would have had to provide the same amount.

He said the federal agency has arranged for the National Park Service to fund data-collection at a precipitation station at the Indiana Dunes in the state’s northwestern corner. No funding is in sight yet for the 29 other stations.

Kim Ferraro, a Valparaiso attorney for the Legal Environmental Aid Foundation, called the state’s move “a favor to refineries and coal companies.” “Clearly, the less data we have to substantiate what pollutants are in the air, the less is required of industries who emit those pollutants to reduce those emissions,” Ferraro said.

Alexis Cain, an environmental scientist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Chicago, said Indiana was under no obligation to fund the monitoring stations.

Still, he called it “unfortunate” that all of Indiana’s monitoring stations, including the 25 stream monitoring stations that had been operating since 2004, were shuttered.

He said the stations help scientists understand the trends in mercury levels in the atmosphere and waterways and to model the potential impact of reduced mercury emissions. Cain said the EPA is working with the USGS to help it find a new funding partner to reactivate Indiana’s stations.

Gay said the network he oversees has never lost so many stations at one time in the seven years since he became program coordinator. “To lose five at once is tough,” he said.


Posted 4/12/2010