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Free fishing in Michigan; free mercury too?

Lake trout have potentially high levels of chemicals, including mercury

Eating fish is the biggest source of mercury contamination for people, and as Michiganders gear up for the Free Fishing Weekend, there are calls for better protections.

More than 50 Michigan scientists sent a letter to Attorney General Bill Schuette requesting he drop his fight against the Environmental Protection Agency's federal Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, which require power plants to reduce mercury emissions.

Joel Blum, a professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Michigan, said there is strong support for the rule in the scientific community.

"Mercury is one of those toxins that we're exposed to that we can actually do something about," Blum said. "The costs of implementing these emissions controls on the power plants are well worth the savings that result from not exposing people to high levels of mercury in the fish that they eat."

Mercury is a neurotoxin that can cause damage to the heart, brain and nervous system, and more than half the mercury deposited in Michigan comes from coal-plant emissions. Schuette contended that the mercury rule is federal overreach that could result in higher electricity rates. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to announce on Monday if it will discuss or dismiss a challenge to the mercury rule brought by Michigan and several other states.

Margrethe Kearney, a staff attorney with the Environmental Law and Policy Center, said the standards would protect public health and the state is ready to meet them.

"Michigan's two largest coal plant owners, DTE and Consumers Energy, are already installing pollution-control equipment to comply with the standards," she said. "Attorney General Schuette's opposition to the rule doesn't help Michigan, it just helps coal plants in other states continue to emit mercury and other toxins."

Blum said there's no doubt the measures to reduce mercury emissions would be beneficial. He said current technology can remove up to 90 percent of the mercury produced by burning coal.

"If all the power plants in our country are required to put the latest emissions technology on the power plants," he said, "we can have a very significant influence on the amount of mercury in the atmosphere."

Meanwhile, Blum reminded anglers to learn which fish are safe for consumption. That information is available through the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services at Michigan.gov/eatsafefish.

The letter is online at elpc.org.