Toxic Mercury Effects a Holiday Tradition

January 1, 2012

On the night before Christmas, many Italian-American families celebrate a traditional meal known as the Feast of the Seven Fishes. But there is another, more unfortunate tradition in New Jersey: the Department of Environmental Protection’s seafood advisories, which warn New Jerseyans, especially women of childbearing age, about the dangers of mercury and other toxins in local seafood. This year, we will have to be careful which fish we serve. Many types of fish and shellfish from waters across the state are labeled unsafe to eat.

However, thanks to the Environmental Protection Agency, we may soon not have to worry about toxic levels of mercury in the fish we eat. In a few days, President Obama is expected to announce new safeguards, designed by the EPA, to dramatically reduce mercury pollution emitted into our air and water. First proposed by then-President George H.W. Bush, these mercury standards are 20 years in the making and will protect women of childbearing age and babies from the birth defects, neurological disorders and developmental delays that are the result of mercury poisoning.

The dangers from mercury, a potent neurotoxin, are real. According to the EPA, as many as one in six women may have levels of mercury in their bodies in excess of recommended amounts. The largest emitters of mercury are coal-fired power plants — dirty, outdated sources of energy that spew a poisonous stew of pollutants into our air and water.

Many power plant operators have already updated their facilities to comply with the forthcoming standard and are asking the Obama administration to implement mercury protections on schedule. Constellation Energy Group, which in 2008 cleaned up one of the nation’s most polluting coal-fired power plants, has asked the president to announce the rule on time, saying: “It’s entirely possible to comply with these rules and remain a profitable company.”

Nevertheless, you will hear arguments from polluters and their allies who will try to scare us into believing that stronger mercury protections will somehow harm the economy. This is simply not true. The EPA estimates that the new safeguards will generate more than $100 billion in environmental benefits — far more than the costs estimated for industry compliance. What’s more, the agency estimates that 31,000 construction jobs and 9,000 utility industry jobs will be created as the industry works to update its plants.

New Jersey has strong safeguards against mercury in place already, yet as the fish advisories make painfully clear, state-level protections aren’t good enough. Our neighbor to the west, Pennsylvania, has the third-highest level of mercury emissions from power plants in the United States, according to a report by Environment America. Studies have shown that one gram of mercury — the amount in an average thermometer — is enough to pollute a 20-acre lake. Pennsylvania’s coal-fired power plants emitted almost 4,000 pounds of mercury in 2010. Much of that mercury ends up in New Jersey’s lakes and rivers. Without protections, all the effort New Jersey’s elected officials, businesses and industries have put into cleaning up our state will be in vain.

Whether or not you celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fishes, we all want our food to be safe. I have long recognized the need for environmental protections, especially the kind of federal protections that will keep all Americans safe. I am glad there will be a Christmas when Italian-Americans can enjoy the Feast of the Seven Fishes without worrying about the food they put on their family’s table. As a New Jersey resident, I am glad we are going to protect all New Jerseyans, especially our children, from the dangers of mercury pollution.

Jim Florio served as New Jersey governor from 1990 to 1994.

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