Clear Skies - Cleveland

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It used to be that if you had enough money, you could escape the impacts of air pollution. But now pollution is everywhere.

Stu Greenberg: Kim, we're going up on the roof!

Take mercury, for example. A by-product of burning fossil fuels like coal to make electricity, mercury is an element that doesn't break down in the environment. It wafts into the air from power plant smokestacks, then returns to the ground in rain or snow. Stu Greenberg, director of Environmental Health Watch, is trying to find out just how much mercury there is.

Stu Greenberg: This is the precipitation collector that was provided by the National Wildlife Federation and we're using it to collect rain and snow samples to analyze for mercury.

Just a few miles away is the Lakeshore power plant, owned and operated by CEI, a subsidiary of FirstEnergy. Both the utility and the government say the plant is in compliance with current clean air standards. But Greenberg believes it's the source of the mercury, even though it's been several years since the plant burned coal.

Stu Greenberg: Already we can see that the mercury levels are many times higher than the standards the EPA has set for mercury concentrations in lakes and streams. It bio-accumulates in lakes and fish. And so we're at the point in Ohio where every body of water - every stream, every lake, and every species of fish - is considered contaminated with mercury by Ohio EPA.

Recent federal warnings against pregnant women and young children eating too much fish draw an arrow to the impact of mercury on public health, says Dr. Kathleen Fagan, a Lorain physician who specializes in occupational health.

Kathleen Fagan: Mercury is a neuro-toxin. It causes nerve damage. It causes developmental delays in children. It causes birth defects. And there are I think the estimates are four or five million women of reproductive age who are at hazard to damage to a fetus from exposure to mercury. And so these are the kind of things that I'm really, really concerned about.

The Bush administration says it's concerned, too. In December, incoming EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt made a stop in Cleveland to announce new proposals that would regulate mercury emissions from power plants for the first time since the Clean Air Act was signed.

Mike Leavitt: Now this is not a modest proposal. It is the single largest investment that we will have made as a country in air quality - more than any in the last decade.

But some people worry the new rules don't go far enough, fast enough. Reverend Marvin Smith runs the Church of the Nazarene on E. 55th Street in the St.Clair-Superior neighborhood. It was his group that forced CEI to close down the coal-fired boilers at its Lakeshore plant.

Marvin Smith: The fact is, there's a lot of folks who live around here in this neighborhood who fish and eat the fish. It's not just sport fishing for them, it's a subsistence. And that's one of the reasons we have been concerned about a question that we've investigated as social justice.

It may be months or even years before the new Clean Air rules go into effect. One rule has been temporarily blocked by a federal lawsuit filed by a dozen states, not including Ohio. While both sides agree that mercury is bad for human health, they don't agree on the best way to reduce it. Smith hopes all of the recent Bush proposals to reduce mercury, smog and soot will mean better health for his neighbors. But his optimism is not shared by environmental health experts like Stu Greenberg.

Stu Greenberg: The estimate for Ohio is that there are 37,000 asthma attacks a year that you can attribute to power plants, and those attacks mean more ER visits, more hospitalizations, more missed school days.

What worries Greenberg most is the Bush administration's proposal to delay implementing new anti-pollution controls on dirty Midwest power plants. He says a recent study attributes 2,000 deaths a year to power plant emissions in Ohio alone - five time the number of deaths from homicides or drunk drivers. In Cleveland, Karen Schaefer, 90.3.

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