September 25, 2005

Mercury Activity

The Keene Sentinel
Sunday, September 25, 2005

In the current tight energy market, coal is a bargain for generating electricity. It’s cheaper than oil and gas. If you count the massive cost of storing spent atomic fuel for 100,000 years or so, it’s a darn sight cheaper than nuclear power.

But the country’s 600 coal-burning power plants pose a serious problem. They pump out 48 tons of mercury every year. About 136 pounds of that come from the two coal-burning plants of Public Service Company of New Hampshire: Schiller Station in Portsmouth and Merrimack Station in Bow. Merrimack Station is PSNH’s largest power plant.

And that mercury gets into the air, and into water, and into the fish we eat. It can cause nerve damage. It affects people’s cardiovascular and immune systems. It is especially dangerous in pregnant women, as it can cause permanent memory and language problems in children. It has also been linked to autism.

So how would you like to live downwind of Merrimack Station?
Earlier this year, that frightful question prompted the New Hampshire Senate to pass a bill that would supersede the Bush administration’s lax environmental regulations and require PSNH to cut its mercury emissions by more than half — to 50 pounds — by 2009 and to 24 pounds by 2013.

At the time, PSNH complained that meeting those strict limits would cost tens of millions of dollars, if it could be done at all. Some environmental experts said that a carbon-injection system for smokestacks could trap most of the deadly mercury for less than a million dollars, but PSNH contended that carbon-injection technology was doubtful and unproven.

Probably as a result of those objections, the New Hampshire House did not pass the bill. But the House did send it to the Science, Technology and Energy Committee for study. Real study, as it turns out. The committee has been meeting over the summer and expects to bring the bill back early next year in some form or another.

In the meantime, PSNH has gotten religion. It conducted a small test of carbon-injection technology this summer — results should be known soon — and it has just teamed with a Colorado engineering firm to apply for a $2.5 million federal grant to try a more extensive test next year at Merrimack Station. “PSNH is actively exploring strategies to reduce mercury at its power plants,” said Gary Long, PSNH’s president and chief operating officer.

It’s tempting to be cynical about this, to conclude that PSNH is only responding to the challenge posed by the anti-pollution bill. But so what if it is? Isn’t that the way representative self-government is supposed to work? People complain, legislators act, good things happen.

And if only the possibility of a tough mercury-pollution standard can generate so much positive activity, just imagine what will happen if the New Hampshire House and Senate actually get together in a few months and pass one?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Isn’t that the way representative self-government is supposed to work? People complain, legislators act, good things happen."

Sure sounds nice. If only it were always that easy!

Interesting article. Thanks for posting Giner.