Coal and Mercury

Minimata Disease Victim, 2006 (photographer unknown)

Minamata Disease Victim, 2006 (photographer unknown)

Back in September 2014, when the effects of methylmercury poisoning in songbirds was first reported, WC asked, “Minamata Disease in songbirds. Are we going to pay attention?”

We now have the answer.


We need to take a couple of steps back to understand the problem and the enormity of the Trump Administration’s recent outrageous decision. While coal-fired electric generation is down, the coal burned in the United Stats each year still contains about 75 tons of mercury. When the coal is burned, about 50 tons of that mercury goes in to the atmosphere. The balance ends up in the coal ash.

The atmospheric mercury doesn’t stay in the air. It falls out in rain and snow, making its way in to rivers, lakes and oceans. Bacteria and other microbes take up the elemental mercury, Hg, and convert it into methylmercury, CH3Hg. When those microbes are eaten by plankton, krill and other bottom-of-the-food-chain animals, it remains in their bodies for a long time. When those bottom tier animals are eaten, the methylmercury accumulates. With each step up the food chain, the concentration of methylmercury concentrates still more until, in top tier predators like sharks, tuna, halibut and pike, concentrations of methylmercury are thousands, sometimes millions of times higher than in the ambient environment. The process is called bioaccumulation.

But the joke is on us, because we eat those fish and eat the mercury we put in the atmosphere. Mother Nature gets the last laugh.

Even slight amounts of mercury let loose in the environment can turn in to a public health crisis very quickly. We have examples from point sources:

So-called “Minamata disease” or “dancing cat fever” was first discovered in Minamata city in Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan, in 1956. It was caused by the release of methylmercury in the industrial wastewater from the Chisso Corporation’s chemical factory, which continued from 1932 to 1968. This highly toxic chemical bioaccumulated in shellfish and fish in Minamata Bay and the Shiranui Sea, which, when eaten by the local population , resulted in mercury poisoning. There are at least 2,265 victims. Blood levels as low as 50 parts per billion produced profound symptom in victims; in children, those levels led to life-long, congenital problems.

Closer to home, the Grassy Narrows, Whitedog and Sarnia First Nations suffered mercury poisoning when Dryden Chemical Company discharged its waste effluent – contaminated by some 9,000 kilograms of mercury – directly into the Wabigoon-English River system. Symptoms included sensory disturbances, such as narrowing of the visual field, and impaired hearing, abnormal eye movements, tremor, ataxia (impaired balance), and dysarthria (poor articulation of speech). Health effects continued to be felt, even in young people, in the 21st century.

Worse still, in pregnant women, it turns out the placenta removes methylmercury from the mother’s bloodstream and concentrates the chemical in the developing fetus.

There’s no mystery about it; there’s no uncertainty. It is simply critical that we strictly limit the amount of mercury that gets injected into the atmosphere, or escapes from coal ash storage facilities.1

Trump and his industry lackeys doesn’t see it that way. Trump thinks that reducing mercury costs the coal mining and coal-fired electrical industry too much. So he made a coal industry lobbyist, Andrew Wheeler, the acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Until a couple of years ago, Wheeler worked for Robert Murray, the CEO of Murray Energy. You can make a persuasive case the Wheeler thinks he is still working for Murray Energy

Wheeler has announced revisions to the mercury discharge regulations. Limiting mercury won’t be required if the costs of limiting the toxin exceeds the benefits of allowing the coal industry to pollute. The EPA thinks you can assign an economic cost to brain-damaged children, Minamata Disease victims and people and animals injured or killed by mercury poisoning. They think you can assign a dollar value to the loss of IQ points in a child, because her mother are mercury-contaminated fish while pregnant. The EPA is so certain it can count those virtual beans that is has concluded the Obama-era mercury restrictions are too costly. “Acceptable losses” applied to the uses of neurotoxins.2

Remember, there is no cure for methylmercury poisoning in neonates.

Implicit in Wheeler’s announcement and the proposed relaxation of mercury tolerance is the idea that accountancy principles apply to public health issues. But it gets worse. The “accountancy” doesn’t include consequential costs, like cleaning up the methylmercury that gets deposited in the environment.3 That will just be our grandchildren’s problem. Those beans don’t count.

Most, but hardly all, of the remaining coal-powered electric generation stations in the U.S. have already been fitted with mercury removal equipment, in compliance with the limits imposed by the prior administration. Given the horrible economics of coal-fired power in comparison to natural gas, there aren’t likely to be any new coal-fired plants built soon. But the assumption that human life can be valued, that a certain level of mercury poisoning is just fine, is morally repugnant. Anyone who advocates for it should first spend six months caring for a victim of methylmercury poisoning.

But, after all, this is the Trump Administration.


  1. Mercury occurs naturally in the environment; there is a background level in many places. But the ocean now contains about 60,000 to 80,000 tons of mercury from human pollution, and mercury levels in the upper ocean have tripled since the beginning of the industrial revolution. See Carl H. Lamborg, Chad R. Hammerschmidt, Katlin L. Bowman, Gretchen J. Swarr, Kathleen M. Munson, Daniel C. Ohnemus, Phoebe J. Lam, Lars-Eric Heimbürger, Micha J. A. Rijkenberg & Mak A. Saito (2014) A global ocean inventory of anthropogenic mercury based on water column measurements, Nature, 512, 65-68, doi:10.1038/nature13563. 
  2. The Wheeler rulings may violate the Minimata Convention on Mercury, which the U.S. signed and ratified. But we know what the Trump Administration does when international treaties are inconvenient to its plans: it withdraws from the treaties. The purpose of the treaty, after all, is  “to protect the human health and the environment from anthropogenic emissions and releases of mercury and mercury compounds”. Not “protect where it is economically convenient.” 
  3. For example, Chisso Corporation has spent more than US$2 billion attempting to remediate the damage to Minimata Bay. But it’s still not safe to eat the fish. The “temporary” solution of entombing the 1.5 million cubic meters of contaminated bottom sludge in concrete has a 40-50 year life. More than half of that time is gone. Chisso Corporation calls the massive landfill an “Eco-Park.” 

One thought on “Coal and Mercury

  1. WC
    Mercury contamination strikes close to home in Syracuse. See the webpage from the Onondaga Nation, the indigenous people for whom our county is named.
    Northwest part of Syracuse, right by Liverpool NY, there’s this beautiful, essentially unusable lake of the dimensions described in the piece. Every now and then, there is this unpersuasive demonstration put on to try to convince It’s Now Safe to Go Into the Water, and several boatloads of officials take a brief swim in the lake. They do not repeat it as part of their demonstration. Once and done is enough.
    Currently there’s a bit of a challenge to continue to dissuade people from eating the fish. Among the many immigrant groups here, southeast Asians are particularly enticed by the fish in the lake, and it can be difficult to persuade that the lake has not reached a safe level yet and fish should not be consumed.
    Remediation has been going on for many years and has many more years to go.
    I was astounded when I heard the news of the relaxation of the mercury regulations. One can only hope that Dems can quickly reinstate those provisions when the presidency changes hands.

    Paul Eaglin

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