The state Department of Environmental Conservation has issued a draft plan intended to cut smokestack mercury emissions to the point that all New York fish are safe to eat again.
New York and six New England states — Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont — are collaborating in an effort to prompt the federal government and other states to follow their lead. The draft plan is called the Northeast Regional Mercury Total Maximum Daily Load.
The states have cut their mercury emissions and discharges in the past decade by more than 70 percent, especially from incinerators, the DEC said. But since they are downwind, their waterways are also contaminated by air emissions farther west.
"This Northeast regional TMDL will help address the link between mercury emissions and mercury pollution in water and highlights the need for implementation of a comprehensive, nationwide mercury reduction strategy that would improve the natural resources not only in New York, but in all states," DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis said.
States in the region have adopted more stringent standards for coal-burning power plants than the federal Environmental Protection Agency's cap-and-trade system, DEC spokeswoman Maureen Wren said. They also are suing the EPA in federal court for stronger federal limits.
In December, New York issued final regulations to require coal-burning power plants to cut mercury emissions by 90 percent by 2015. Its 12 coal-burning plants supply about 10 percent of the state's power. New York already had restrictions in issuing power plant permits, as well as other rules limiting dental use of mercury and wastewater discharges.
Gavin Donohue, president of the Independent Power Producers of New York, had said the new emissions regulations would raise costs to consumers.
New York's Health Department has issued advisories against eating certain species of fish from many waterways because of high levels of mercury found in them, especially in the Adirondacks and Catskills.
The draft plan says overall mercury deposition in the region — most from outside sources — would have to be cut by 86 to 98 percent to put an end to the fish advisories.
Mercury enters the atmosphere in the coal-burning process and works its way up the food chain, accumulating in plants, fish and eventually humans. Children and fetuses are particularly vulnerable to mercury's effects, which includes damaging the development of the nervous system, according to the EPA.
The Adirondack Council, an environmental group, praised the draft, which is available for public comment through May 25. "Since the federal government has failed to take the appropriate actions on mercury pollution, New York must use every method possible to end the damage caused by mercury and protect the vital tourism economy of the Adirondack Park," Executive Director Brian Houseal said.