It was a one-two punch for our fishermen and their families last month. Less than a day apart, the state agency in charge of issuing pollution permits gave the green light to two proposed coal fired power plants in south Georgia. The government gave pollution permits to these coal plants which would allow them to emit approximately 9,000 pounds of mercury to our air over their 50-year life span.
Mercury is a toxic pollutant that can cause birth defects and learning disabilities in developing babies and young children if their mothers eat the contaminated fish. South Georgia’s freshwater rivers are particularly vulnerable to mercury pollution and already have a documented problem with mercury in the fish. The state’s failure to protect our families from this well documented mercury problem is shameful.
Earlier this month, Ogeechee Riverkeeper released the results of a volunteer fish collection to test for mercury in fish from the Ogeechee, Canoochee and coastal area streams. The report, Protect Yourself and Your Family from Mercury Pollution, found excessively high levels of mercury in largemouth bass in the Ogeechee and Canoochee Rivers and (thankfully) lower levels in fish from a few coastal areas.
The results of the collection conducted by Ogeechee Riverkeeper closely mirror the recommendations issued by the state for nearly a decade. The largemouth bass and larger fish collected from the Ogeechee and Canoochee Rivers had mercury levels high enough to trigger a recommendation to only eat them once a month. This recommendation means that if you eat large fish from the Ogeechee or Canoochee Rivers, you should not eat any other fish for a month. Smaller fish, such as small catfish and redbreast, fared better with the levels triggering a recommendation to restrict eating those fish to one meal a week or less.
Of the fish caught along in-shore coastal waters, the mercury levels were much lower than those found in the Ogeechee and Canoochee Rivers. However, every fish collected had mercury in it. As a result, Ogeechee Riverkeeper recommends limiting the consumption of sea trout and whiting to no more than one meal a week, particularly for the most vulnerable populations: women of childbearing years and young children.
This report helps to educate people about the dangers of eating mercury contaminated fish and seafood and the existing levels of mercury in fish in the rivers and along the coast. The report also includes tips for making smarter choices to reduce exposure to mercury in fish and ways to get involved to reduce mercury pollution.
Ninety-nine percent of the mercury in the Ogeechee River system comes from air pollution. The vast majority of the mercury released to our air comes from coal fired power plants. The best thing we can do to reduce the amount of mercury in the fish and on our families’ dinner tables is to reduce our electricity usage and stop new sources of mercury pollution.
In addition to the mercury belching from the smokestacks, these proposed coal plants would be permitted to suck up millions of gallons of water from our rivers and aquifers. For example, Plant Washington, proposed along the banks of the Ogeechee, would be permitted to pull 16 million gallons of water a day from the Oconee River and our aquifers. The plants will also add tons of other harmful pollutants to our air including lead and soot. These other air pollutants could interfere with forest landowners ability to conduct prescribed burns. Thankfully, conservation organizations in Georgia filed legal challenges to help stop the air and water pollution from these plants.
In the short-term, we can protect ourselves from mercury pollution by making safer choices about which fish we feed ourselves and our families. In the long-run, we must reduce our electricity usage and turn away from burning polluting coal and embrace safer sources of electricity generation.
The full report, along with more tips and ways to reduce your electricity usage are available for free at www.mercury-free-families.com.
Brown is the Ogeechee RiverKeeper. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.