Stilles Legislation Targets Mercury Emissions

April 30, 2002
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SPRING LAKE — Calling it an “environmental menace,” a state lawmaker wants to rid mercury from air emissions in Michigan and through other forms by the end of the next decade.

Legislation that Sen. Leon Stille, R-Spring Lake, is drafting would require the state Department of Environmental Quality to reduce mercury emissions 70 percent by 2010 and completely by 2020. Mercury emissions largely come from coal-fired power plants and municipal and medical waste incinerators.

In preparing the legislative package, Stille cites environmental and health hazards stemming from mercury contamination, including evidence pointing to mercury’s role in neurological problems in children, such as autism. The matter is much more than a public health issue for Stille — it’s personal. His 7-year-old grandson is autistic.

“There’s a realization because of the family impact, and it’s opened our eyes,” Stille said. “It is personal.”

The veteran Ottawa County legislator hopes that the timing is right to bring the issue to the forefront in Lansing. He points to a growing awareness of problems associated with mercury contamination, an environmental group’s findings earlier this year of high concentrations of mercury contamination in rain and snow in Macomb County, and a recent bipartisan legislative task force report on the state of the Great Lakes that recognized mercury as a “severe threat that must be fully addressed.”

“The chances are better now than perhaps they’ve ever been,” said Stille, who’s hopeful of pushing through a package of bills during the lame-duck session of the Legislature late this year.

“We’ve got this thing out of the chute. Not it’s a matter that it stay on course and get some recognition,” he said. “We have a problem with sources identified. Now, we need to implement sensible legislation to clean up our air and water before it’s too late.”

A 1996 report from the Michigan Mercury Pollution Prevention Task Force cited coal-fired power plants as causing the largest share of mercury emissions in the state: 48 percent. Municipal incinerators accounted for 28 percent and hospital and other incinerators generated 12 percent of the mercury emissions.

Consumers Energy Co., which has four coal-fired plants in Michigan, two of which are in Stille’s legislative district, has no firm stance on his plans, but points to a two-thirds reduction in mercury emissions in its plants since 1980. The utility also is in the midst of a $500 million effort to upgrade its power plants to reduce emissions — including mercury — even further, spokesman Charles MacInnis said.

“We have an aggressive program to reduce emissions from our power plants,” said MacInnis.

Any effort to increase regulations to further reduce emissions also needs to work in concert with new federal initiatives to reduce mercury emissions, he said.

“It would be much more sensible to have coordination on this because two sets of rules would be much more challenging for us,” MacInnis said. “It would seem more productive if the activities were coordinated. It’s not an issue that’s unique to one state.”

Stille said his bills will follow a recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plan to reduce Great Lakes contaminants. He wants to work with the utilities to formulate a plan.

“I’m looking to team up with them, not fight them,” Stille said.

The multi-bill legislative package, in addition to eliminating mercury emissions within 18 years, would also target the elimination of dental mercury and other medical products containing mercury, which is used in thermometers and equipment to measure blood pressure, as well as items such as fluorescent lighting, light bulbs and barometers.

The aspects of the legislation dealing with medical waste incinerators would put into law what hospitals and medical centers are already doing on a voluntary basis. Several hospitals in Michigan — including Metropolitan Hospital and Spectrum Health’s Butterworth and Blodgett campuses — have become mercury-free in recent years, replacing, for instance, mercury thermometers and blood pressure monitors with digital units and taking other steps.

Saint Mary’s Mercy Medical is also pursuing the same program, known as Hospitals for a Health Environment, initiated in 1998 under an agreement between the Environmental Protection Agency and the American Hospital Association.           

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