Among the issues most commonly discussed are individuality, the rights of the individual, the limits of legitimate government, morality, history, economics, government policy, science, business, education, health care, energy, and man-made global warming evaluations. My posts are aimed at intelligent and rational individuals, whose comments are very welcome.

"No matter how vast your knowledge or how modest, it is your own mind that has to acquire it." Ayn Rand

"Observe that the 'haves' are those who have freedom, and that it is freedom that the 'have-nots' have not." Ayn Rand

"The virtue involved in helping those one loves is not 'selflessness' or 'sacrifice', but integrity." Ayn Rand

13 July 2014

Evaluating the Mercury Emissions Danger from Coal-Fired Power Plants

The Environmental Protection Agency has recently put into effect a ruling called Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) that requires power plants to greatly decrease their mercury emissions.  This directive is aimed primarily at coal-fired power plants and is said to be authorized under the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments.  The EPA claims that electric power units are responsible for 50% of the mercury air pollution in the United States.  The EPA provides a U.S. map with power plant mercury air emission quantities as well, including a scary health claim. 

Let us put this map into a rational perspective by comparing it with the total measured mercury air pollution across the country.  In this way we can extract a good sense of the contribution of man-made power plant mercury air pollution compared to that of natural sources.  If we live in an environment in which natural sources of mercury produce far more mercury emissions than do electric power plants, then we may look at the cost to benefit evaluation very differently than the power-lusting EPA does. 

Now, I have actually done this in an earlier post on this blog using total mercury air deposition maps for the years 2009 and 2010.  That post is Coal-Fired Power Plants Produce Insignificant Mercury.  Clearly the EPA was either not interested enough to learn about the mercury pollution problem to read that post or it was so motivated by emotional political concerns that it knowingly ignored the facts of reality cogently explained in my previous post.  However, in the interests of educating American voters, I will try to influence thinking Americans on this topic once again and use the newer total mercury air pollution maps of 2012 and 2011 to do so.

The Mercury Deposition Network measures the total deposition of mercury from the atmosphere each year at many stations across the USA.  These maps are found here. The mercury deposition distributions from the atmosphere across the USA for 2011 and 2012 are shown below. 

As in 2010 and 2009, the highest concentrations of mercury deposition from the atmosphere occur in the west, with particularly high rates in the Rocky Mountains, areas east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the Southwest, and areas of the Great Plains states.  The Southeast is much less bad and as one works up the East Coast through the Middle States into the Northeast, the amount of mercury deposition decreases.  This general story of the mercury deposition concentrations is supported by all of the mercury deposition maps for the years 2009 - 2012.

California varies from year to year, having been rather bad in 2012, but not bad in 2011 and 2010, and somewhere in between in 2009.  If electric generating plants produce half the mercury deposition in the US as the EPA claims, it sure is hard to imagine that the mercury output of electric power plants in California varied so much in those years to explain the major variations in mercury depositions there.  It turns out that U.S. fires cause about as much mercury to become airborne as do electric generating plants.  According to Willie Soon and Paul Driessen, U.S. fires produce an average of 44 tons of airborne mercury a year.  Now, we can make some sense of the California variability.  2012 was a much worse fire year in California than the other three years and 2009 was the second worst of the four years.

Now according to the EPA, electric power plants in 2005 produced 53 tons of airborne mercury.  This was down from 59 tons in 1990.  It we assume the same rate of decrease after 2005 as between 1990 and 2005, in 2012 the mercury output would be estimated to be about 50 tons.  This is barely more than the 44 tons due to wildfires in the U.S.  This has consequences.  If the EPA says that 50 tons of output is the source of half of the airborne mercury, then the wildfire contribution is 44%.  This leaves very little for other man-made sources and for any other natural cause.  This, I will demonstrate, is a crock!

To see why, let us look at the mercury deposition maps and compare them to the distribution of the electric power plants.  The bulk of the electric power plants are in the East!  The worst of the mercury deposition is well to the west of them.  Since prevailing winds are from the west to the east, there is no way those huge swathes of red in the West are due to the electric generating plants mostly in the East!  Even granted that there are more wildfires in the drier and more sparsely inhabited West than in the East, there is no way the 44% of the airborne mercury due to fires is the cause of those huge red areas.  The numbers and the distribution of mercury do not add up.  There are clearly natural sources of mercury that are much more important than the EPA's colorful and self-empowering story would allow.

To hammer another nail in this sadly incompetent or untruthful story, note that the EPA map of power plant emitters shows a very large concentration of such emitters in the Ohio Valley, stretching from Eastern Missouri; through southern Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio; Kentucky, West Virginia, eastern Ohio, and western Pennsylvania.  This cluster is such a large fraction of what the EPA says is 50% of the mercury airborne pollution, that if they were anywhere near right, there would be a bright red area where this cluster of power plants is and also to the east of them where the prevailing winds would carry their mercury output.  So what do we see?  We see some light red in Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana that seems to carry over from the redder areas west of them.  We see a lot of tan in Kentucky, Ohio, and western Pennsylvania.  But note the particularly dense cluster of mercury output from power plants according to the dubious source of the EPA in eastern Ohio, northern West Virginia, and Western Pennsylvania, and ask yourself why this is not the brightest of all red areas on the distribution maps.  And ask why eastern Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New Jersey are largely green, indicating a low deposition of mercury in those downwind areas.

Consider the case of Idaho.  There are no power plant emission sites in the EPA map of such sites in Idaho.  Washington and Oregon states to the west of it have almost no power plant emitters.  Nonetheless, Idaho is in large part red in the two distribution maps here, as it was in the two earlier years as well.  Why?  It is not because Idaho is overwhelmed with forest fires.  No, there are other important natural causes of mercury emissions which can produce much higher concentrations of airborne mercury depositions than can the densest cluster of power plants.

Overall, it is clear that the contribution electric power plants make to airborne mercury is actually trivial in comparison to natural sources of airborne mercury.  As I pointed out in my previous post on this subject, this is likely mostly due to the wind erosion of the many mercury deposits brought to the surface by the volcanoes, which have long been extinct, but once were plentiful in the southern Rockies and in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  It is very clear that electric power plants produce insignificant quantities of airborne mercury compared to the natural sources.

So if the EPA actually cared about Americans' health and if airborne mercury actually was a danger to us, then it should find the natural sources of mercury and clean up those sites.  Where a vein of cinnabar (mercury sulfide) is exposed, it would see to it that it was covered with a layer of concrete or in some other way kept from further erosion.  Of course, the west is already covered in the dust from such sources, but finding the richer sources of mercury would in time decrease the hazards.  Such an effort would have more effect than cleaning up the electric power plants in all likelihood, given the puny mercury output of the power plants.

In the meantime, people who choose to live in the West should at least be educated that they are exposing themselves to this mercury hazard.  Except, if it really is a hazard of great concern, then we should see significant health problems in the American West due to the high concentrations of airborne mercury there.  We should have no need to refer to far away island peoples with a heavy seafood intake to evaluate the medical problems caused by mercury.  This is what the EPA seems to do, though it will not make those studies public and some such studies are known to show no real problems.  There is general agreement though that most of human intake of mercury is due to eating seafood or fish from mercury-rich streams and rivers.  Eons of natural erosion of mercury deposits and volcanic outputs have loaded the oceans with about 200 ppm of mercury.

So are there any studies that show that the high concentration areas for airborne mercury in the West are the cause of elevated mercury illness problems?  No, not that I can find.  Is there any evidence of higher rates of mercury induced illness in the areas around the cluster of power plants on the Ohio River, especially in southern and eastern Ohio, northern West Virginia, and western Pennsylvania?  There is a study by the West Virginia Dept. of Health and Human Resources entitled Exposure to Mercury in West Virginia by Barbara J. Smith that concludes:
Data are inadequate to determine if:
• mercury in West Virginia fish tissue is increasing or decreasing,
• West Virginian’s are exposed to more mercury than people in the United States,
• reducing mercury emissions in West Virginia will result in reductions in mercury residues in fish caught in West Virginia waters and
• adverse health effects are occurring in West Virginian’s due to mercury exposures from
eating fish.
It seems clear that epidemiologists and physicians have been unable to find any connection to date either between the comparatively high mercury deposition rates throughout much of the American West or in the vicinity of the major cluster of power plants in the Ohio Valley.  This has not inhibited the EPA in proclaiming itself a hero in stopping evil power plant operators from spewing mercury into the air.  No, even though power plant mercury is clearly of insignificant quantities relative to natural sources, the plant owners are expected to shut down or make very expensive installations of scrubbers to remove all traces of mercury from their emissions.

Shutdowns will result in the rot of large capital investments, the loss of jobs, and required replacement of plants with new plants which will direct more capital away from other business endeavors.  In some cases, electricity capacity shortages may result.  The installation of new scrubbers that can remove mercury will also redirect capital from other endeavors and it will increase the cost of electricity production.  In both cases, the added capital investment will require electricity cost increases for consumers.

If the mercury emissions of power plants were significant compared to natural sources and if some health consequences in areas of high mercury deposition could be demonstrated, then it would be rational to make a cost-benefit analysis of power plants that emit mercury.  One might conclude that the installation of mercury scrubbers was necessary or that coal had to be replaced by natural gas as the fuel.  However, given that neither of these rationally critical conditions can be shown to exist, it is a fool's errand to require the actions the EPA has mandated with the MATS ruling.

Given the false story the EPA is telling about airborne mercury depositions, it is clear that it is either incredibly incompetent in making rational scientific and economic assessments and/or that it is simply and only interested in increasing its own power.  There is good reason to believe that "and" and not "or" applies in that statement.  The story the EPA tells when it claims carbon dioxide is a pollutant which will cause catastrophic man-made global warming is just another such case in which its science and economics are extremely deficient.  Once again, in the carbon dioxide emissions case, it is also very clear that the EPA is only interested in gaining power.

It is also very clear that the EPA is fulfilling Obama's and the Progressive Elitists' vendetta against coal under both MATS and under its claim that CO2 is a pollutant.  Having a renegade administration that is trying to wipe out a major coal and energy industry is very harmful to our standard of living.  This is even worse given that they have reduced our production of oil and gas on federal lands and offshore as well.


mad4nertz said...

Thank you, Dr. Anderson. I will seek out more of your posts. One of your arguments that I heartily agree with is the childishness of the catastrophic AGWarmists: egocentric; believing everything bad that happens is "al our fault"; and that what we know is everything there is to know. Such emotionally immature non-thinkers cannot realize the severe limitations of their own personal knowledge and experience, let alone the limits of all of mankind's knowledge. They cannot make responsible choices because it is above their capacity. Little tyrants. Dr. Anderson I will be exploring as many of your writings as I can find. Thanks again!

mad4nertz said...

Thank you, Dr. Anderson. I will seek out more of your posts. One of your arguments that I heartily agree with is the childishness of the catastrophic AGWarmists: egocentric; believing everything bad that happens is "al our fault"; and that what we know is everything there is to know. Such emotionally immature non-thinkers cannot realize the severe limitations of their own personal knowledge and experience, let alone the limits of all of mankind's knowledge. They cannot make responsible choices because it is above their capacity. Little tyrants. Dr. Anderson thanks again and I look forward to exploring your it her writings.