Mercury is a toxic pollutant that has extreme neurological and environmental effects when emitted into the air and water. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has taken steps to control mercury emissions with the Minamata Convention on Mercury. In January 2013, the Convention was finalized, and is open for signature until October 9, 2014 at the UN Headquarters in New York. The United States signed and ratified the Minamata Convention on June 11, 2013.
Article I of the Convention outlines that the objective is to “protect human health and the environment from anthropogenic emissions and releases of mercury and mercury compounds.” Article 8 identifies the steps each government needs to take to reduce mercury emissions. Annex D of the convention includes coal-fired power plants in the definition of point sources of mercury emissions.
Coal-fired power plants are a major source of mercury emissions in the United States. Mercury emissions that are emitted into the air from coal-fired smokestacks pollute nearby water bodies in a process known as atmospheric deposition. The water pollution of mercury negatively impacts wildlife and human health, especially causing severe neurological damage in women and children.
In the United States, mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants are not regulated under the Clean Water Act. Any addition of a pollutant from a point source into navigable waters must be regulated under the Clean Water Act permitting program (CWA § 402 or 404). Therefore, the failure of the United States to include coal-fired power plants as a point source may create a violation of the Minamata Convention.
Currently, the Clean Air Act in the United States regulates mercury emissions as a hazardous pollutant under a permitting regime, but not as a water pollutant. Should the United States amend the definition of a point source to include coal-fired power plants? This would expand the regulation of mercury emissions into the air and water, better protecting human health. The United States is only regulating coal-fired power plants as a point source under the Clean Air Act, is this enough?
Sources: Minamata Convention on Mercury – Text and Annexes; Minamata Convention – List of Signatories and Parties; UNEP