July 22, 2014

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Water plant looks to avoid expensive upgrades to lower toxic emissions

LORAIN — Coal-burning power plants are responsible far more mercury pollution than water treatment plants, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a key fact in a Lorain wastewater plant’s effort to get a waiver on mercury limits.

The disparity between coal plants — responsible more than half of all overall mercury pollution — and wastewater treatment plants — which contribute a fraction of the pollution — is often raised at hearings on allowing wastewater plants to exceed federal mercury limits, said Ohio Environmental Protection Agency spokesman Mike Settles.

“That’s been a big criticism of environmental groups. We need to focus more on what’s coming out of the stacks,” Settles said Thursday after a hearing on renewing Lorain’s Philip Maiorana Wastewater Treatment Plant’s waiver to exceed limits was canceled when no one from the public showed up. “That’s a big, complex issue.”

While reducing mercury pollution may be complex, the dangers of it are clear. Mercury — a highly toxic metallic element — is one of the primary toxic emissions that annually kill 13,000 people, according to the American Lung Association. The Ohio Department of Health warns residents not to eat more than one meal of fish caught in Ohio water bodies per week due to high mercury contamination.

The association is supporting the tougher mercury air emission standards proposed March 16 by the U.S. EPA. Congressional Republicans and power plant lobbyists are fighting the proposed standards saying they’re too expensive and would cause higher electricity bills for customers. The U.S. EPA counters that for every dollar spent by the power plant industry, there will be $13 in economic and health benefits, totaling $140 billion annually.

Like the proposed federal air standards, Settles said the Ohio EPA is trying to be proactive with mercury water pollution standards. However, he said the technology needed to meet the 1.13 parts per trillion federal standard for the Great Lakes states is too expensive for plants like Lorain’s, so his agency is considering renewing the plant’s waiver. A decision is expected in 30 to 90 days.

The agency, which Settles said has approved waivers to about 70 wastewater plants in the last two years, estimates the technology would cost at least $10 million per pound of mercury. Instead of requiring the technology, the agency is asking plants like Lorain’s — which processes up to 3 million gallons of water per day — to educate polluters on keeping mercury out of the water.

“They’re not really changing at all what they’re doing at the plant, but they will have to go out and try to reduce the sources of mercury coming to the plant,” Settles said. “That’s really a more economical way to deal with this regardless of how much the technology would cost.”

The U.S. EPA estimates about 50 percent of mercury water pollution comes from dental offices when patients spit out mercury from amalgam fillings into drains. The Ohio EPA advocates purchasing amalgam separators, which cost roughly $1,600, to prevent mercury contamination. Ohio does not require separators, but at least eight states do, according to the American Dental Association.

The Ohio Environmental Council, an environmental watchdog, would support requiring separators, said Ellen Mee, council environmental health policy director. While acknowledging wastewater plants are responsible for only a fraction of mercury pollution, Mee said reduction technology costs are exaggerated by the Ohio EPA. She said waivers encourage polluters to continue business as usual.

“It just makes a mockery of the water quality standards,” Mee said. “If there was some incentive to help support the development of this technology, it really could become affordable.”

Mee said the council understands cities like Lorain can’t afford the technology, but the Ohio EPA could require polluters to share purchasing costs.

That would prevent polluters from holding communities hostage by threatening to leave for communities that don’t require the technology. Mee noted that polluters have skirted the 1972 federal Clean Water Act for decades.

“Everybody’s passing the buck,” she said. “Somebody has to step up and say, ‘Enough is enough.’ ”

Public comments on the waiver can be sent to the Ohio EPA, Division of Surface Water, Permits Processing Unit, P.O. Box 1049, Columbus, OH 43216. The public comment period ends Thursday.

Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or egoodenow@chroniclet.com.