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KY, IN: Among Most Mercury Polluted States in Nation

February 10, 2011

LEXINGTON, Ky. - The Bluegrass State and Hoosier State are among the most mercury-polluted states in the nation, according to a recent report.

Environment America ranks Kentucky fifth and Indiana sixth in emitting the most toxic mercury pollution. The report's analysis shows coal-fired power plants in Kentucky emitted close to 6,000 pounds of mercury in 2009.

Lauren McGrath, associate campaign representative for the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign, says the heavy metal puts expectant mothers at risk for birth defects in their children, including learning disabilities, developmental disorders and lower IQs.

"There's mercury going into our waterways, getting into the systems of fish and being consumed by humans. And, because mercury is a potent neurotoxin, it bio-accumulates in our system."

The Environment America report, available online at environmentamerica.org, found that 11 electric utilities in Kentucky and Indiana rank in the top 100 emitters of toxic mercury.

The industry says it's reduced mercury emissions by substantial amounts, but McGrath says research suggests that even a gram-sized drop of mercury can contaminate a 20-acre lake. She argues the utilities have rarely self-regulated to protect the public, creating the need for action by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

"So, we're really asking EPA to step in, and in March the EPA is poised to propose a new standard to limit mercury and other toxic air pollutants from power plants. We're really asking them that, with these statistics that we're facing as a nation right now, they step it up and limit mercury by up to 90 percent."

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear defended the coal industry during last week's State of the Commonwealth address, crediting coal for supplying 90 percent of the state's power demands, keeping rates low and employing 18,000 miners. He blasted moves by Washington to clamp down on coal mining by imposing what he called "arbitrary and unreasonable regulations."

McGrath offers a contrasting perspective.

"What they're actually doing is trying to keep an age-old industry in place that, in most areas of the country and most areas of the world, is starting to transition out. However, in Kentucky they're trying to maintain business as usual."

Beshear and other policymakers contend Kentucky is focusing on energy efficiency in expanding alternative and renewable energies, while still including the use of clean coal in efforts to meet power demands.

Renee Shaw, Public News Service - KY