Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Mr. Clothesline Goes to Washington

Actually, not really Washington.  It was really just Philadelphia.  But it was the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the CR was offering its first Federal testimony on matters of environmental protection, at the request of the Evangelical Environmental Network.

What was at stake?  The EPA has developed national standards for mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants.  Coal plants emit all kinds of harmful toxins, but many of them can be controlled with existing technology (not CO2, but many).  One of the real nasties is mercury, which gets washed into watersheds by rainfall, and concentrates in fish.  One of the best foods in the world has now become a major source of risk to humans.

Mercury: worst for unborn babies
And while mercury is very bad for everyone, it's unbelievably bad for babies in the womb.  Between one-in-six and one in twelve American pregnant mothers have unsafe levels of mercury in their bodies.  That means every year 700,000 American babies are born with the risk of a host of neurological and other diseases linked to mercury poisoning. (Click here to learn more about mercury poisoning and its victims.)

Fortunately, it's pretty easy to stop emitting mercury.  The state of New Jersey has cut its mercury emissions by two-thirds over 16 years.  Some plants have reduced it by 97%.  It has been done, and can be done.  But in many states, the coal industry has sued or lobbied to block these efforts, and so we all continue to be highly exposed.  

Now the EPA wants to act, and industry again wants to stop them.  So we felt it was time to speak out in defense of unborn and nursing babies, and their moms -- especially the 700,000 American children born every year in serious peril.  So here's what we told the Feds:

Public Hearing on National Standard for Mercury Pollution from Power Plants:
Philadelphia, PA
Testimony of John Elwood

Good afternoon.  

I am speaking to you today as a citizen of the State of New Jersey, and as a board member of the Evangelical Environmental Network, an organization of Christians who advocate care for God’s creation. I live in Andover, New Jersey, where I also operate a sustainable produce farm.  Andover is located in Northwest New Jersey, near the Pennsylvania border.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to testify in support of the EPA's proposed standards on mercury emissions. 

Every state has mercury warnings
In New Jersey, we have made great strides in reducing mercury contamination.  Since 1992, our state has reduced its mercury emissions by more than two-thirds, from more than 9,000 lbs. in 1990, to about 3,000 lbs. in 2006.  And the goal for 2011 is a reduction of 85% below 1990 levels. 

This result has been achieved by across-the-board improvements including improved incineration of municipal and medical waste, iron and steel manufacturing, and coal-fired electricity generation, among many others.   The greatest impact has come from implementing proven, mature emissions technologies.  As an example of our success, our state’s largest steel mill has reduced mercury emissions from 900 lbs. in 2005 to only 30 lbs. in 2009.  And our municipal waste incinerators now emit 97% less mercury than they did in 1990.

Looks so good -- but often contains deadly mercury
And yet, despite these accomplishments, the Archives of Environmental Health have reported that in New Jersey, 13% of pregnant women – one out of eight – have mercury levels considered unsafe for child-bearing.  And in further defiance of our progress, the New Jersey DEP has analyzed mercury concentrations in fish and found “no apparent trend in mercury concentrations” as recently as 2006.  

 In the words of NJDEP scientist Michael Aucott:  “Mercury is a metal that just won’t go away.”

But New Jersey’s mercury problem is not ours alone:  We share a 190-mile border with Pennsylvania.   And while our coal-fired power plants emit only 284 lbs. of mercury per year, Pennsylvania’s plants emit 15,550 lbs. – 55 times more than our state.  Not surprisingly, our neighbor’s mercury emissions are not regulated.  In 2009, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld a ruling that overturned the state’s attempt to reduce mercury emissions, presumably because the EPA was supposed to be carrying out this function itself.  In New Jersey, we live downwind of the country’s worst mercury-polluting state, unable to do anything about it since the courts have found that only the EPA can come to our aid.
Almost pretty: America's worst mercury polluting plant in Shelocta, PA

My family has a poignant reminder of this on a weekly basis.  Every Sunday, I take them to our church in the town of Knowlton.  Directly across the Delaware River from Knowlton is the Portland Power Plant in Mt. Bethel, PA.  The Portland Plant uses few if any smokestack emission controls, and the prevailing winds carry its coal pollutants across the river and into New Jersey.   The plant emits 369 lbs. of mercury per year.  Compare that – from only one plant – to the 284 lbs. emitted by all of New Jersey’s power plants combined. 

Portland, PA plant: more mercury than all in NJ combined
In the words of New Jersey’s top environmental officer: “It is unacceptable to have a single power plant on our border emitting more sulfur dioxide and mercury that all of New Jersey’s coal-, oil- and gas-fired power plants combined.”  

I am also pleased to speak on behalf of the Evangelical Environmental Network.  As you have heard from prior testimony, we seek to represent Christians in their efforts to protect the creation, and the creation’s most vulnerable children.  Evangelical Christians often speak out in defense of the unborn, and we are all fully aware of the harm that mercury poisoning does to unborn children.  The Bible often teaches that, in His justice, God has a special concern for the poor, for the widow, the orphan, the sojourner, the oppressed, and for little children.  In other words, Christian justice demands that we give special attention to those whom Jesus calls “the least of these brothers of mine” – those least able to protect themselves.

We have read of an estimated 700,000 defenseless children who are born every year in the United States with physical impairments resulting from exposure to mercury.  On behalf of the gospel of Christ, we at EEN urge you to consider the requirements of justice as embodied in the Christian faith, and act to defend those least able to defend themselves.

Elwood testifying to EPA: Lindsey and Clara watching
Eighteen months ago, my daughter Lindsey Burns brought us the wonderful news that she was pregnant with our first grandchild.  She was determined to make every effort to protect her child from mercury, so she religiously avoided all but the safest fish, and that very sparingly.  Happily, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl. 

We have brought her with us today: Clara Mae Burns.  

But on the day Clara was born, and every day in New Jersey, one out of eight babies is born with some neurological damage because mercury remains unregulated in many places.

Today, we ask you to remember the thousands of other children in our country who are just like Clara, except for unregulated mercury poisoning. 

Thank you.


  1. Another informative and thought-provoking post. Thanks for all you are doing to raise awareness of these issues, John!

  2. I was unaware of mercury contamination until Lindsey taught me, and until Evangelical Environmental Network showed me what a fight is going on regarding its regulation. Everyone has a part to play. Now you!

  3. I'm so glad we've met. If we hadn't, I would not be reading your blogs full of concern for people and the environment. Dianne