Aug. 15, 2001 TROY, N.Y. – While the debate rages over the future of the nation’s energy resources, including the potential increase in the number of coal-burning power plants, researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have linked coal plant emissions to toxic levels of mercury.
Their study shows that the level of mercury in sediment at the bottom of New York’s Central Park Lake is at least 10 times the amount found in some industrial areas.
“The atmospheric input of mercury to the sediments is the highest I have ever seen. We know mercury is toxic, and we know it accumulates over time. The question is, is this acceptable?” said Richard Bopp, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences at Rensselaer and a leading authority on PCBs and other pollutants in the Hudson River, New York Harbor, and elsewhere.
Bopp’s findings are especially significant in light of this year’s power shortages in California and the ensuing controversy over coal-burning power plants. A recent report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency predicted that the emission of hazardous air pollutants by coal-fired utilities would increase 10 percent to 30 percent by the year 2010.
Bopp’s team studied core samples of lake sediment dating back to the 1860s. After consulting historical records of coal consumption in the city, Bopp concluded that domestic coal-fired stoves and furnaces, industrial fuel use, and coal-burning power plants left much of the toxic residue.
Bopp’s study showed the highest atmospheric inputs of mercury in levels of sediment dating from the early 1900s, when coal use peaked in the New York City area.
Last December, the EPA reported the emission of mercury as the greatest health concern posed by coal burning. Coal-fired plants in the United States emit an estimated 52 tons of mercury into the atmosphere per year.
The EPA believes a plausible link exists between the emission of mercury from coal-fired utilities and the amount of mercury found in the air, soil, and water. The ingestion of fish contaminated with mercury is thought to play an important rule in exposing humans to this toxic metal known to damage the kidneys, nervous system, and brain.
“The potential for increased mercury in the environment depends, to a large extent, on emission controls. The level of emission control that is appropriate for coal-burning power plants is a significant question that will have to be addressed,” Bopp said.
An earlier study of the same samples, published by Bopp and colleagues in Environmental Science and Technology in 1999, concluded that most of the lead found in the Central Park Lake sediments came not from the use of leaded gasoline, as many scientists believed, but from the incineration of municipal solid waste.
The Central Park Lake study was funded through a Superfund Basic Research Grant to Mount Sinai Medical Center. The Rensselaer team worked with researchers from Columbia University and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
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