Thursday, September 18, 2014

Minnesota's Mercury in retrograde?

A story in today's Star Tribune caught my attention in part because I think it fits with a much bigger issue. Folks up in the North Country are accusing the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency [MPCA] of putting jobs ahead of children's health by not following through on a collaborative mercury reduction study. After reading the article, I can understand why folks are upset. One point in particular made me wonder if the reporter mis-wrote something or if the MPCA is engaging in theoretical science.
“They all say it’s sulfates,’’ Lotthammer [MPCA staff] said. “We know that sulfate is a factor, but it’s not the only factor.’’

She said MPCA researchers are now studying a range of possible factors that could convert mercury into a form that gets into the food chain and builds up in game fish.

Scheduled to continue at least through 2017, those studies relate to factors such as water temperature, water flow, sunlight, carbon and natural organic matter, she said. The research will dissect the complexity of the food chain, down to tiny bugs in the sediment.
Lake Superior,  Duluth Harbor in the background
Photo by J. Harrington

Now, I'm pretty sure we can do something about sulfates and even reduce mercury concentrations. I'm ready to accept that a lot of other factors "such as water temperature, water flow, sunlight, carbon and natural organic matter" may be involved. But, I'm at a loss to envision what MPCA would propose to do to mitigate the impacts of water temperature, water flow, sunlight ... on mercury bioaccumulation. On the other hand, neither do I understand why Minnesotans haven't expressed outrage at the fact that MPCA has established that, for Minnesota water quality to be classified fishable, consumption of fish can be limited to one meal per week. That, it seems to me, may have environmental justice implications for Native Americans and, speaking strictly personally, doesn't fit my definition of fishable. I've been known to eat more than an average of one meal of fish (less than a half pound's worth per meal) for a year. Delays in mercury reduction while the science is improved may raise another kind of equity issue. Western Lake Superior Sanitary District has a nice report on Mercury Reduction Project Guidance for Wastewater Treatment Plants. If the public sector wastewater treatment is doing its share, it seems reasonable to expect others in the private sector to do the same.

Years ago, I encountered the concept "The perfect is the enemy of the good." I don't recall where I came across it, but I took it to heart as a counter to my perfectionist tendencies. I wonder if the MPCA staff and board are aware of that philosophy and how it might fit with their efforts to improve water quality and reduce bioaccumulative mercury. There's a hearing on this in Duluth this evening. I'm looking forward to seeing reports on what is said and done. I also wonder how EPA is going to look on Minnesota's results if they aren't consistent with federal and international water quality standards.

The bigger issue I referred to at the start of this posting is that environmental protection was much more straight forward when our rivers caught fire and were obviously polluted with human waste. Now we're looking at more invisible, longer term and globally sourced pollution that's much more challenging to address. That's progress? At least the Tuckerman poem finds a light after a dark night. We should be able to do the same.

“Roll on, sad world! not Mercury or Mars”

By Frederick Goddard Tuckerman 

from Sonnets, Second Series


Roll on, sad world! not Mercury or Mars
Could swifter speed, or slower, round the sun,
Than in this year of variance thou hast done
For me. Yet pain, fear, heart-break, woes, and wars
Have natural limit; from his dread eclipse
The swift sun hastens, and the night debars
The day, but to bring in the day more bright;
The flowers renew their odorous fellowships;
The moon runs round and round; the slow earth dips,
True to her poise, and lifts; the planet-stars
Roll and return from circle to ellipse;
The day is dull and soft, the eave-trough drips;
And yet I know the splendor of the light
Will break anon: look! where the gray is white! 

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