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Tuesday, December 9,2014

BWL the polluter

BWL’s poor responses to the ice storm and a plant accident may be forgivable, but failing to abate mercury pollution is another matter entirely

by Mickey Hirten
You have to wonder sometimes how the people who run Lansing Board of Water and Light sleep at night.

We learned last week that the utility's Erickson plant installed equipment in 2007 that would drastically reduce the amount of toxic mercury is spews out over Lansing and nearby communities. But it hasn't turned it on to save money and, well, because it didn't have to.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the Erickson plant, just east of General Motors' Delta Assembly Plant, releases 25 to 27 pounds of mercury into the atmosphere each year. Because of west-to-east weather patterns, the toxins drift across the Grand River, neighborhoods, parks and playgrounds. It's happening now.

BWL said it would cost approximately $1.25 million a year, not including maintenance, to operated the system to abate most of the mercury emissions. And it cited continually changing federal standards as a reason not to activate the equipment.

“Rather than operate Erickson’s carbon injection system with unclear and vacillating standards, the BWL has taken a number of steps to reduce its emissions, including mercury emissions, by building the REO Town Cogeneration Plant,” BWL said in response to questions about its actions.

But this dances around the point.

Regardless of government-imposed standards and how they might have changed, BWL could have cut its mercury emissions. It had the option and passed on it. Certainly, the REO Town plant is a responsible way to address pollutants, but why not do more than less, especially when it could affect the health of its customers?

As for the cost to ratepayers, that should be a Board of Commissioners' decision or at least a discussion since it represents the interests of people. BWL wouldn't say whether it had raised the issue with the board. But it wouldn't be the first time.

“I can't remember this issue being brought up,” said Commissioner Dennis Louney, a board member since July 2009. “I could see that if they had it ready to go and just didn't turn it on, then tell us.

“This gets back to the other issue. I think there is pattern of management informing us on stuff,” Louney said.

David Price, the board’s chairmanelect, reflects Louney's view: 'In my recollection, that discussion has not happened.” The same for four-year board member Cynthia Ward. Louney and Price expect to raise the issue at this week’s board meeting.

This decision by BWL is yet another blemish for Lansing’s “hometown” utility and is different from its flawed recovery from the December ice storm or the poorly managed accident at its Wise Street water treatment plant.

The utility was poorly prepared and acted slowly after the ice storm, but it didn't intentionally set out to bungle the recovery. The plant accident was avoidable and expensive, made all the worse by the company's attempts to downplay it. Charitably, let's say BWL reacted badly.

But the decision to allow seven years of mercury poisoning in our neighborhoods, and of our children, lakes and parks and rivers was calculated, avoidable and contrary to the way BWL portrays itself.

“Your hometown utility wants to help make our community a great place to live.” BWL announces on its website. And it prides itself on taking extra steps to address customer health concerns.

“ ... We’ve embarked on one of the most aggressive programs in the country to remove lead from drinking water as an issue of concern for our customers. Although we’re in compliance with the EPA’s lead action level, we’ve committed to removing all lead service lines from our water service territory.”

Why not mercury? The Natural Resources Defense Council reports that most mercury pollution is produced by coal-fired power plants and other industrial processes.

“Exposure to mercury, even in small amounts, is a great danger to humans and wildlife. When mercury enters the body it acts as a neurotoxin, which means it harms our brain and nervous system. Mercury exposure is especially dangerous to pregnant women and young children, but all adults are at risk for serious medical problems,” the council said.

This is a real problem in Michigan.

With more than 11,000 lakes, rivers and streams, and surrounded by the Great Lakes, water is everywhere, and that's where mercury concentrates.

It has contaminated much of the state's fish population, prompting warnings from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Community Health, about fish consumption.

We can eat them, but at a measured risk. BWL hasn't help and it should.

Email Mickey Hirten at mickey@ lansingcitypulse.com.

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