Mercury vote highlights need for a new Great Lakes mindset
This falls in the category of things that are so bizarre that you can’t make them up.
Last week nearly one-third of Great Lakes senators voted against protecting citizens – especially women of child-bearing age and children – from the effects of mercury pollution.
Their vote is bizarre because the health risks from mercury emissions are serious and have been known and accepted for years.
Mercury is a neurotoxin that “can adversely affect a baby’s growing brain and nervous system” according to the USEPA website. Put in simpler terms the EPA says exposure to mercury impacts a baby’s “cognitive thinking, memory, attention and language….
This bears repeating.
Mercury is a neurotoxin that “can adversely affect a baby’s growing brain.”
What more is there to say!
The senate vote was on a technical piece of legislation that if passed, could have rolled back protections against mercury pollution from power plants. It was introduced by Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma and wrapped around job protection language.
The Inhofe legislation was defeated by a 53-46 vote but here’s the troubling part.
Those five senators from the Great Lakes region who voted for the legislation. The Republicans are senators Pat Toomey from Pennsylvania, Rob Portman from Ohio, Dan Coats and Richard Lugar from Indiana, and Ron Johnson from Wisconsin.
Their vote is perplexing because the Great Lakes region has long had a mercury problem based on emissions from power plants. A vote against the Inhofe proposal should have been a layup for every senator from the region.
Mercury is a “major concern.”
The Great Lakes Commission reported in 2011 that “mercury pollution remains a major concern in the region and the scope and intensity of the problem is greater than previously recognized.”
The Natural Resources Defense Council, citing EPA data, released its own mercury pollution report on June 8. It said Ohio is the worst Great Lakes state offender, emitting 21 percent of all mercury pollution in the region.
That makes the vote by Portman, Ohio’s senator, all the more incredulous.
Wisconsin’s Johnson also voted for Inhofe’s proposal, which is really tough to understand. Mercury bio-accumulates in the fatty tissue of fish and if there is a state that loves to fish it’s Wisconsin.
What does Johnson’s vote say to the Badger state’s 1.4 million licensed anglers?
Neither Portman’s nor Johnson’s office responded to a request for comment.
But the NRDC did.
“It seems like we’ve been battling mercury in the Great Lakes forever. We cannot fix it, or rid the Lakes of this destructive neurotoxin if our officials vote to put pollution over people” said Josh Mogerman, the NRDC’s national media director.
Politics trumps clean air and water
The Inhofe legislation certainly wasn’t about protecting citizens from the effects of mercury pollution. It wasn’t even about jobs, though that was the crutch used by its weak, politically motivated supporters.
It was about letting election year politics trump the health and well-being of people, especially women and children. It was about the misguided legislative faction that wants to blame the USEPA for the nation’s economic ills.
The fact that five Great Lakes senators voted to weaken protections from mercury is a bad sign for the region. It will never shed its rustbelt moniker or reputation as a home to mercury pollution by living in the past.
Portman and Johnson are both new to the senate, coming in with the 2010 class. They have no Great Lakes credibility and took a step back from establishing it by their action on the mercury issue.
Portman especially needs to get the Great Lakes right as he represents Lake Erie, the most vulnerable of all the Great Lakes.
A new Great Lakes mindset
There is a bigger issue at play here than just an ill-intentioned piece of election year legislation which ultimately failed.
It’s our mindset. Out of necessity we’re still reacting, cleaning up our messes from the past.
EPA administrator Lisa Jackson has said she wants a “new standard of care” for the Great Lakes. The restoration initiative is the first step in that direction. But it’s a baby-step.
As a unified region we need to embrace a new mindset about our Great Lakes and the region’s economy. It should be one that:
- Stops clinging to the jobs versus the environment mantra
- Prioritizes action over advising, monitoring, measuring and study
- Invests in infrastructure to keep sewage out of our drinking water
- Where sixteen senators from both parties stand shoulder-to-shoulder and say the Great Lakes will no longer be a mercury dumping ground.
Illinois politicians should protect the Great Lakes and economic development by taking the Chicago waterways system from the 19th to the 21st century. Ohio shouldn’t let business write the weakest water conservation law in the region. And Michigan shouldn’t allow its water to be commodified, bottled and exported by corporate interests.
Unfortunately, administrator Jackson’s “new standard of care” and a forward-looking Great Lakes mindset appear to be far in the future. Recent events indicate they may never materialize.
If we needed evidence of how far we have to go, the mercury vote of those five senators provided plenty.
Their path leads to more of what got us where we are: In need of a new mindset and “standard of care” for the Great Lakes.