By Jon Cassidy | Ohio Watchdog
COLUMBUS — Electricity bills across Ohio will skyrocket as new regulations force coal-fired generation plants to close, putting some 45,000 people out of work.
Thank Sherrod Brown. And the president’s Environmental Protection Agency. And whale blubber.
Brown, Ohio’s Democrat U.S. senator, recently voted to allow the EPA to implement severe new emissions regulations, including its most expensive rule ever, one that limits mercury emissions. The rules already have led to the announced closures of at least 16 plants in the region.
Environmentalists lobbying on behalf of the new regulations would like you to believe the new EPA rule is based on science that measures poisonous mercury in the air your children breathe. But the study they point to regards mercury in whales that your children don’t eat.
These are the pilot whales eaten in vast quantities by the people of the Faroe Islands, a Danish archipelago that lies in the North Atlantic between Norway and Iceland.
Or rather, Faroe Islanders used to eat a diet heavy in pilot whale meat, until researchers discovered that pilot whale meat and blubber were dense with mercury and PCBs, both hazardous to humans in high doses. Researchers also found lead, cadmium, pesticides, organic pollutants, and DDT in the whales.
All in all, a good reason to switch to fish.
By 2003, citing the Faroe Islands research, chief medical officers there warned pregnant women to avoid pilot whale meat. In 2008, they extended the warning to the entire population of the archipelago.
When the EPA considered the Faroe Islands study in the early 2000s, it played dumb about pilot whales, treating whales and fish as identical even though a 1996 study had found pilot whales had “a remarkable tolerance” to mercury and other heavy metals.
That’s an important factor because Americans eat fish, not whales. If pilot whales are wildly different from fish, then a study based on a diet of whales is irrelevant to fish-eating Americans.
When critics pointed that out during the EPA’s version of the peer-review process, the agency’s official response was: “EPA is unaware of any data on whether methyl mercury in whale meat is more or less bioavailable than methyl mercury in fish tissue. EPA assumes that bioavailability from these sources is equivalent.”
Only, it’s not, as the very author of the Faroe Islands study could have told them.
“The Faroese children are not exposed to methylmercury by eating fish,” wrote Pal Weihe, a top medical authority in the islands and one of the study’s authors. “They are exposed to mercury by the traditional consumption of pilot whale meat.”
Cod, the other dietary staple of the Faroese, “had approximately 95 percent lower methyl mercury concentrations than did pilot whale,” the authors of another study found.
Their diet is why Faroe Islanders had blood concentrations of methyl mercury 350 times higher than an average American woman.
The pilot whales also were loaded with PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), which are known to cause developmental problems, and may even interact with methyl mercury.
The study’s authors haven’t explained how they were able to isolate one variable from the other – that is, to explain why the blame would lie with one substance rather than the other – other than to say there didn’t appear to be much correlation between children who had ingested PCBs and low test scores. They haven’t released their data for independent verification.
Similarly, the EPA refused to acknowledge the possibility that the study’s findings might have been due to PCBs, rather than mercury.
Its official response to criticism: “In order for postnatal PCB exposure rather than methyl mercury exposure to be the cause of the observed effects, there would have to be a high correlation between prenatal methyl mercury exposure and postnatal PCB exposure. EPA knows of no reason to hypothesize such an association.”
No reason? How about pilot whales? If the whales are loaded with bad junk, and everybody’s eating them all the time, that’s a clear correlation, no hypothesis needed.
The agency’s position is even stranger because another major study in the Seychelles islands found no correlation between postnatal mercury exposure and health problems. Prenatal exposure was the danger.
But if the EPA abandoned the barely assertable harm from the Faroe Islands study, it would lose its grounds for further restricting mercury emissions in coal-fired power plants.
If the whole question seems academic, it is.
“The last serious cases of human health impacts from mercury poisoning in the U.S. occurred decades ago,” writes author Paul Driessen.
Brown, like other supporters of the EPA’s rule, treats the infinitesimal amounts of mercury in the atmosphere as if it were harming people.
“Mercury is a very toxic substance,” he has said. “I reject the false choice between having clean air to breath and a job to support a family.”
He’s right that mercury is toxic, but so are isoprene, acetone, ethanol, methanol, trichloroethane, butane, butyl acetane, propanol, and formaldehyde, and all are commonly found in exhaled human breath at much higher levels than mercury, which is to say, several orders of magnitude below the level they might have any effect.
The EPA set a standard aimed at protecting the most extreme case in the country’s entire population: a hypothetical subsistence fisherwoman who eats nearly a pound a day of self-caught fish, which is roughly the amount of whale meat Faroe Islanders eat.
That number was established by a thoroughly scientific method: going to the Palmetto Sportsmen’s Classic in South Carolina and asking large women to point at pictures of fish portions they’d typically eat.
That serving is triple the consumption of even the top percentile of U.S. adult women, and 60 times more than women in the 90th percentile, as determined by actual surveys, not fish pictures.
The reason the EPA considered subsistence fisherwomen in backwaters and not the general population is that its regulations will have no effect on mercury levels in fish caught worldwide, but it can argue that U.S. power plants might affect fish in American streams.
As Driessen and Dr. Willie Soon of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics wrote in the Wall Street Journal, U.S. power plants account for less than 0.5 percent of the mercury in the atmosphere, so the regulations will have no global environmental effect. Forest fires put out almost as much.
Soon has written an 85-page report detailing some of the shortcomings of the decision, but ever since he challenged climate change orthodoxy, his critics dismiss him as a shill rather than rebut his arguments. His report, like others sponsored by the industry that stands to lose hundreds of billions, pulls apart the EPA’s illogic at every step, from the effects of mercury, to its presence in American diets, to the EPA’s ability to reduce its presence, to the responsibility of the coal industry.
Since the Clean Air Act became law in 1990, environmentalists have wanted to shut down the dirtiest coal plants. These regulations, based on the mercury argument, will do just that, even if they won’t much affect mercury.
The mercury scrubbers will cut particulate matter emissions, something EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson cares about.
“If we could reduce particulate matter to healthy levels, it would have the same impact as finding a cure for cancer in our country,” Jackson said last year.
If that’s true, smokestacks kill as many people as the Holocaust every decade.
The hyperbole may not matter, but the rules do. Roughly 90 percent of the Ohio’s electricity is generated by coal, compared to 50 percent nationwide and 40 percent worldwide, according to Oxford Resource Partners.
Several of the state’s 26 major coal-based electricity generating plants will have to close. At least 16 plant closures in the region already have been announced.
Coal stocks are plummeting. The DAXglobal Coal Index is down 44 percent over the last year.
The industry estimates that implementation will cost $17.8 billion a year, while the EPA says it will be around $10 billion. Under President Obama, it’s worth noting, the EPA has begun counting enforcement costs as benefits in its cost-benefit analyses. It counts regulatory jobs as benefits, in a classic example of the broken window fallacy, but it goes further. The “EPA has repeatedly stated that forcing businesses to purchase pollution control equipment should be treated as a benefit, not a cost on production, for the same dubious reasons,” according to Regulation magazine.
That these costs get passed on to customers isn’t speculation. The market already is setting prices for 2015, when the new EPA rules take effect.
The region’s power grid operator held its reserve capacity auction in May for 2015, establishing a market price of $357 per megawatt for northern Ohio – more than double the price for the rest of the region, and astronomically higher than the $16 per megawatt the region will pay next year.
At a minimum, that will mean annual electricity bills several hundred dollars higher than at present, depending on how often the market needs peak power.
Folks who can’t afford that bill should know that eBay offers a retro alternative for around $70.