Monday, May 1

Gov. Blagojevich signs new law to reduce toxic mercury emissions

Governor urges Illinois Pollution Control Board to approve aggressive new mercury emission standards          Send a link to a friend

[MAY 1, 2006]  CHICAGO -- On Earth Day, Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich signed a new law creating a statewide program to remove and collect mercury-containing switches from retired vehicles before they are processed as scrap metal, so that the mercury is not emitted into the environment. Mercury is a highly toxic heavy metal that can cause permanent brain damage, autism, deafness and blindness as well as reduce IQs and slow motor functions. Recent studies indicate that as many as 10 percent of babies born each year in the United States are exposed to excessive mercury levels in the womb.

Until several years ago, many auto manufacturers used mercury in automobile light switches and anti-lock brakes. When those cars are scrapped and recycled -- usually by melting down the steel -- the mercury is emitted to the environment. Each mercury switch contains 1 gram of mercury, which is enough to contaminate a 30-acre lake. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the 280,000 vehicles junked annually in Illinois contain between 400 and 800 pounds of mercury from light switches. Once in the air, mercury can be deposited into rivers and lakes, contaminating fish and getting into the food chain, where it can pose a serious health risk. Steel mills that melt down metal switches are a leading source of mercury emissions, after coal-fired power plants.

Also on April 22, the governor renewed his call to the Illinois Pollution Control Board to approve his proposal to cut mercury emissions from power plants by 90 percent by June 30, 2009. The state standards will reduce toxic mercury emissions faster and more thoroughly than federal restrictions and will achieve the largest overall amount of mercury reduction of any state in the country.

"Mercury is a highly toxic heavy metal that can cause serious health problems like brain damage, autism, deafness and blindness," Blagojevich said. "What better day than Earth Day to reinforce our commitment to removing mercury from our environment and protecting children, pregnant women and everyone else whose health is put at risk by mercury pollution?"

House Bill 5578, sponsored by Rep. Karen May, D-Highland Park, and Sen. Terry Link, D-Lake Bluff, requires the removal of mercury switches before vehicles are scrapped. This helps reduce toxic mercury emitted from steel-making facilities in the region. Mercury switches can be found in hood and trunk lighting of certain vehicles manufactured before 2003, as well as anti-lock brake systems on some four-wheel-drive vehicles. Since scrap metal from shredded vehicles is used to produce new steel in electric arc furnaces, removing the mercury switches before the vehicle is scrapped will help reduce toxic mercury emitted from steel-making facilities.

The new law requires automakers to create mercury switch collection programs, offering storage containers to auto recyclers and dismantlers and arranging for transportation of the removed switches. Participation by auto recyclers is voluntary during the first two years; however, if the switch capture rate doesn't meet the required level after two years, then it becomes mandatory for recyclers to participate, and automakers would then have to pay auto recyclers for every switch they remove. Illinois EPA is required to help the automakers conduct outreach to inform auto recyclers about proper switch removal practices and encourage participation in the voluntary program.

"I am pleased that Illinois is the first Midwestern state to address this environmental health hazard," said May, House sponsor of the legislation. "Mercury causes brain damage, especially in children, and passing this bill was a big success. But, we must continue to work to get rid of mercury in our environment, and I am committed to doing just that."

"Mercury has become a serious environmental issue over the past few years," said Link, Senate sponsor of the bill. "Prior to that, we had no idea that mercury was so harmful. It is imperative that we dispose of these mercury switches in a safe and secure fashion. By disposing of these switches properly, we can significantly reduce the pollutants in our air."

"Earth Day reminds us in Illinois of our constitutional right to a healthful environment," Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn said. "I applaud Governor Blagojevich for his continued efforts to make Illinois a leader in mercury removal, and I salute Representative Karen May and Senator Terry Link for their hard work to eliminate this toxic pollutant from our environment."

"By eliminating the number two source of mercury pollution in Illinois, we have made Illinois significantly safer," said Jonathan Goldman, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council. "Existing programs have shown that financial incentives significantly increase the number of switches pulled. Illinois' program will be one of the toughest programs in the country."

"This legislation will keep 800 pounds a year of toxic mercury out of our environment, and Illinois PIRG applauds Representative Karen May, the Legislature and Governor Blagojevich for it," said Max Muller, clean water advocate for Environment Illinois, the new home of the environmental program of the Illinois Public Interest Research Group. "Meanwhile, thousands of pounds of toxic mercury are still being emitted from coal-burning power plants across the state. Governor Blagojevich has proposed a common-sense rule to eliminate this toxic threat, and if approved, this rule will make Illinois a national leader in protecting generations of children from toxic mercury pollution."

"This legislation is the spark to protecting our children and the environment from mercury harms," said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center. "Coal plants are the biggest mercury polluters. Now let's get the governor's mercury reduction plan in place to protect our kids' health."

In January, Blagojevich announced his proposal to aggressively cut mercury emissions from Illinois power plants by 90 percent by mid-2009. These state standards will go far beyond the federal Clean Air Mercury Rule restrictions adopted last spring and would make Illinois a national leader in efforts to reduce toxic emissions into the environment.

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued the federal rule on March 10, 2005. It required coal-fired power plants to reduce mercury emissions 47 percent by 2010 and 79 percent by 2018. The proposed Illinois rules are significantly stronger, requiring a 90 percent emissions reduction by June 30, 2009, and prohibiting power plants from purchasing allowances or trading emissions credits with other companies or states -- practices that can lead to toxic "hot spots" in areas where individual plants are able to get around emissions standards.

In the U.S., an estimated 43 percent of mercury emissions come from power plants, making them the largest man-made source of mercury emissions. The Illinois EPA estimates that the state's coal-fired power plants emit 3.5 tons of mercury into the air every year.

The governor's proposed rules were filed March 14 with the Illinois Pollution Control Board. The proposed rule for tougher mercury standards will go before the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules this summer.

Mercury can cause serious health problems to the human nervous system. Pregnant women, women of childbearing age and children younger than 15 years of age are especially at risk. Developing fetuses can be exposed to mercury when a mother eats tainted fish. As a result, they can suffer mental retardation, cerebral palsy, lower IQs, slow motor functions, deafness, blindness and other health problems. Recent studies indicate that as many as 10 percent of babies born each year in the United States are exposed to excessive mercury levels in the womb.

When mercury is released to the air, it can be deposited into rivers and lakes, contaminating fish and getting into the food chain. The Illinois Department of Public Health has issued a statewide fish consumption advisory, warning pregnant women, nursing mothers and young children to eat no more than one meal a week of predator fish (e.g., bass, walleye and northern pike) caught in Illinois waters, due to high mercury concentrations. Mercury is especially toxic to young children and fetuses. Long-term exposure to low levels of mercury can harm the central nervous system and cause learning problems in both humans and wildlife. The damage to the nervous system can include lower intelligence and slowed motor function.

"Illinois is moving to protect our kids' health by tackling the major sources of toxic mercury pollution one by one," said Jack Darin, director of the Sierra Club, Illinois Chapter. "Our hospitals are cleaning up by closing their waste incinerators; we will no longer burn or landfill car parts that contain mercury; and Governor Blagojevich has proposed to cut 90 percent of the mercury coming out of our coal plants. By taking these strong actions to clean up mercury pollution, Illinois is not only protecting our children but also setting an example for America to follow."

Environmental consciousness has become part of mainstream culture since the inception of Earth Day 36 years ago. Though it is celebrated one day during the year, Blagojevich believes that protecting, restoring, cleaning up and preserving the environment is something that should be celebrated on a year-round basis. Since coming into office, he has demonstrated his continual commitment to improving the environment, both in Illinois and regionally:

  • In 2004, Blagojevich called on 11 hospitals across the state that were still burning medical waste to voluntarily shut down their incinerators. Incinerators emit mercury and dioxins, which have been linked to cancer, birth defects and other health problems. As a result of the governor's action, six incinerators have been shut down and four others have agreed to schedules for shutdown.

  • Focusing on retail products, last year the governor signed legislation that ended the sale of mercury thermometers and novelty items. This is another step to remove mercury from the waste stream and replace the items with safer available alternatives. This bill supports previous legislation that further reduced mercury-containing products that pose a potential health hazard to Illinois residents, making schools, homes and other buildings safer.

  • The governor and state agencies are also making Illinois a leader in the use of cleaner alternate fuels, such as E-85 ethanol, biodiesel and hybrids, through executive orders issued by the governor that relate to the state vehicle fleet, numerous workshops around the state, a rebate program and the governor's recent proposal for a $500 state tax credit for certain fuel-efficient electric hybrid vehicles.

  • In addition, the governor's Clean School Bus Program is resulting in cleaner air for thousands of Illinois schoolchildren as a result of grants for retrofitting diesel buses with control equipment and use of cleaner fuels, as well as investments made by private school bus operators.

  • The governor is also very committed to encouraging clean-coal technology and is aggressively pursing the federal FutureGen demonstration project, which will use coal for power with virtually zero emissions.

  • Continuing his push to improve the region's air quality, Blagojevich sent Illinois EPA Director Doug Scott to Washington, D.C., last week for a meeting with other top environmental officials, representing Virginia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Texas and members of the Ozone Transport Commission.

[News release from the governor's office]


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