Pushing for Coal
By: Jeanne Fasan
What seems to be a big push from the new Presidential Administration to revitalize the coal industry, could have lasting and incredibly damaging effects on the planet. Over the last few months, President Trump has quickly begun signing and repealing legislation with the goal of easing coal pollution regulations. However, before this Administration, the general trend in the Federal Government was imposing stricter regulations on the coal industry due to the pollution directly linked with mining and burning activities. For example, President Trump halted the Stream Protections Rule the day before it was set to take effect. This Obama-era rule aimed to prevent coal mining operations from dumping toxic mining waste into streams and rivers. Without legislation detailing where coal mining operations are allowed to dispose of hazardous waste, most of this waste will likely end up downstream in streams, rivers and eventually drain into larger bodies of water. However, toxic waste from coal is not limited to dumping mining byproducts into waterways. A great amount of contamination comes from mercury that is released into the atmosphere when coal is burned.
Mercury is a naturally occurring element found in the Earth’s crust and in fossil fuels such as coal. When coal is burned to produce energy, inorganic mercury is released into the atmosphere. The substantial increase of burning fossil fuels over the last few centuries has created a massive influx of inorganic mercury in the environment. Although inorganic mercury is considered relatively harmless, it becomes a major problem when it is deposited into aquatic ecosystems, such as lakes and rivers. Bacteria in these aquatic ecosystems can convert inorganic mercury to its very toxic form, methylmercury.
Releasing inorganic mercury into the atmosphere is problematic. It can travel from a few feet to thousands of miles through the air. Eventually it is deposited back onto the Earth’s surface through precipitation and dust particles. Therefore, mercury emissions are not confined to just the countries that emit them. To control and reduce mercury and other fossil fuel emissions truly requires a global, collaborative effort.
Methylmercury is the most toxic and common form of mercury in the United States. It is a very powerful neurotoxin which causes damage to the brain, nervous system and is especially harmful when exposed to a developing fetus. The United States Environmental Protection Agency has extrapolated that almost every human has trace amounts of methylmercury in their body tissue. Although most humans have a concentration of methylmercury below what is considered to be “dangerous”, scientists are now finding that many wildlife populations have concentrations of methylmercury in their body tissues that exceeds what is considered “safe” levels of the toxin.
The most common way methylmercury enters humans and wildlife is through fish consumption. Humans might be able to avoid eating fish to reduce exposure to methylmercury, however, wildlife populations cannot. For example, many shorebirds rely heavily on fish for their diet. Furthermore, mammals and other larger predators commonly prey on shorebirds and their eggs which continues the chain of contamination. Methylmercury is bioaccumulative, meaning it builds up in the body with each exposure and its toxic effects are amplified.
Creating coal-friendly policies will continue to degrade the health of ecosystems, wildlife and humans and at a much faster rate. To better understand how releasing chemicals in the environment will affect current and future populations, there is great need for more environmental toxicology research and studies. Areas of special concern are lakes, rivers, wetlands, and bays/estuaries which are densely populated and the perfect environment for the bacteria that creates methylmercury to thrive. Society should aim to increase clean, renewable and sustainably harvested energy sources to meet energy needs in the future. Making it easier for American coal mining operations to pollute air and water will only further deteriorate the health of our planet and ourselves. If President Trump continues this trend of easing regulations aimed at decreasing coal pollution and promoting the industry, society is likely to experience far greater air and water pollution and for a much longer time than just four years.
Jeanne Fasan is a wildlife biology technician studying mercury contamination in the South San Francisco Bay. She leads a crew that monitors breeding populations of shorebirds every summer. They collect data and samples to study how methylmercury cycles through ecosystems, accumulates in shorebirds and ultimately how it affects reproduction.