A History of Fighting Mercury Pollution

Greenpeace and other environmental organizations recently campaigned heavily for a strong Mercury Rule, testifying at EPA hearings and driving a petition to the EPA that resulted in nearly 50,000 signatures.

But the environmental community’s campaign to control mercury from power plants and other facilities goes back well before the Mercury Rule. Here’s a walk down memory lane of Greenpeace’s own contributions to the larger fight against mercury pollution--with a few other items for context:

  • 1950's-1970: Problem Brought to Light

During the 1950's, villagers in the Japanese town of Minamata die and newborns show severe disorders as a result of mercury pollution from a local chemical plant. Mercury is entering the bay and contaminating fish, which the villagers use for food. 

By the 1960's,researchers in Sweden are facing their own mercury problem when birds begin dying from mercury-laden fungicides that are coated onto seeds.

The dangers of mercury hit the U.S. in 1970 when a family is stricken with deafness, blindness, and insanity after eating a pig they had raised on feed laden with mercury. That same year, Ohio’s portion of Lake Erie is closed off to commercial fishing after fish in the Great Lakes region are discovered to contain high concentrations of mercury.

  • 1970: Coal Plant Mercury Pollution Revealed

Researchers with what would become the Southwest Research and Information Center prove that coal plants are a significant source of mercury pollution after sampling the smokestack emissions at Four Corners coal plant in New Mexico.

  • 1970: Clean Air Act

Congress passes the Clean Air Act, setting up the Environmental Protection Agency as the government organization for minimizing the nation’s air pollution.

  • 1989-early 1990's: “The Mercury is Rising”

Greenpeace campaigns heavily against garbage and toxic waste incinerators in Florida. A Greenpeace investigation reveals that garbage incinerators produce 96 percent of all mercury emissions in southern Florida. One million acres of the Everglades are contaminated with mercury, entering fish that local populations rely on for food  and leading to the death of a Florida panther

Between 1989 and 1991, Greenpeace leads many activities against incinerators nationwide. In Florida this includes a bus tour across the state, a 107-mile march, and banner droppings from the incinerator smokestacks. Pushed by Greenpeace and other environmental groups, the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation proposes a temporary moratorium on new trash incinerators in 1992

In 1993, the state legislature passes an 18-month moratorium on new hazardous waste incinerators. That same year, Florida imposes caps on mercury pollution from public garbage incinerators—the first state to do so.

  • 1993: Outrage in Ohio

Greenpeace and other organizations take a firm stance against WTI, a toxic waste incinerator located 1,100 feet from an elementary school in East Liverpool, Ohio, that begins operation in 1992. The stance is part of a larger campaign against all incineration. Licensed to burn 70,000 tons a year of toxic waste, WTI is an obvious source of many pollutants, including mercury. 

Soon after its construction, a test run reveals that the facility releases more than three times the legal amount of mercury. While running for office, Clinton commits to stopping WTI and supporting a moratorium on new incinerators. After the election, Vice President-elect Al Gore commits to protecting people over WTI, but soon after the inauguration the Clinton EPA issues WTI an operators permit.

Greenpeace organizes a cross-country bus tour culminating in mass civil disobedience at the White House with local Ohio citizens and actor Martin Sheen on May 17, 1993. That same day, the EPA announces a moratorium on all new incinerators but continues to allow WTI to operate.

  • 2000: Holding Clinton Administration Accountable

Greenpeace continues to hold the Clinton Administration accountable for WTI, staging two other actions in 2000:

  1. Coalition lockdown in front of the EPA’s DC office.
  2. Return of the book “Earth in the Balance” to Al Gore’s home, joined by East Liverpool residents.

  • 2000: EPA Regulation

EPA announces its intention to propose regulations on mercury and other toxic emissions from coal and oil power plants by 2003 as part of the Clean Air Act.

  • 2004-2006: Splitting Hairs Over Mercury

Greenpeace joins up with the Environmental Quality Institute at the University of North Carolina-Asheville to analyze mercury levels in everyday people. Thousands of citizen activists from around the country order test kits and mail in hair samples, where the samples are analyzed for mercury levels.

The results are staggering: The mercury levels in one in every five women of childbearing age are above the EPA’s suggested limit. The resulting report is the largest ever mercury analysis using hair. The campaign is a whack against the utility industry and attempts by the Bush administration to protect power plants from regulation.

Mercury emissions from plants pollute water, fish and humans.

  • 2011: A new Mercury Rule

After an initial EPA regulation on mercury is knocked down by a court ruling in 2008, the EPA proposes new “Mercury and Air Toxics Standards”, sometimes called the “Mercury Rule”.

Greenpeace and other environmental groups stand behind the rule, which would reduce mercury emissions from power plants by 91 percent and save up to 17,000 lives a year. By the end of the public comment period on the rule, Greenpeace gathers nearly 50,000 signatures in a petition drive, calling on EPA administrator Lisa Jackson to approve the “strongest possible” version of the rule.

While the EPA is finally controlling mercury from power plants, they have yet to do so from other sources. They've taken the first step, but need to also start regulating mercury emissions from chemical manufacturing facilities, cement plants, and waste incinerators.

Timeline compiled by Brian Johnson, Greenpeace Coal Campaign

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