Electric utilities have applied for the permits they need to build new coal burning power plants in south Georgia, and local families have every reason to be concerned. Already, we live with the pollution from the plants we have: There are government warnings about the consequences of eating too many fish, too often.
If the new power plants are built, it will make a bad situation worse. Coal burning power plants produce many different kinds of pollution, but mercury is the most dangerous for people and animals. Mercury is a heavy metal, and it is toxic to humans -- particularly children, even in small amounts.
You might be surprised to learn that coal burning power plants produce more mercury pollution in Georgia than any other source – more than 60% of the total. Coal power plants release mercury in fine particles into the atmosphere. Those particles return to earth with the rain and snow, entering ground water and wells. In this way, air pollution can easily become water pollution.
Once this pollution makes its way into streams, lakes, and even the ocean, it becomes part of the food chain. Little bugs in the water eat the decaying leaf matter and take up the mercury; little fish eat bugs, , larger fish eat the smaller fish. It takes a while for the fish to get rid of the mercury after they eat contaminated prey, so this dangerous pollutant is building up in the fish. Since we tend to eat the bigger fish, we’re eating the fish and seafood with the highest levels of mercury.
South Georgia freshwater streams, such as the Ogeechee and Canoochee Rivers, have special water chemistry that converts this mercury into its most toxic form. So, even though these streams may look pristine, they are, in fact, heavily polluted with mercury from coal fired power plants.
Even low levels of mercury can cause serious nervous system damage, particularly in young children. Heavy metals can inhibit the development of the nervous system, causing learning disabilities, erratic and aggressive behavior, and lower IQ scores when they get older.
Mercury poisoning has also been linked to mental retardation, blindness, and deafness. When pregnant mothers consume these toxins through contaminated water or fish, those toxins are passed on to the fetus. These toxins can also be passed through breast milk, effecting newborns as well.
That all sounds grim, and it is, but right now, with the exception of a few areas in coastal Georgia, it’s safe and healthy for adults and children to eat crabs, shrimp, flounder, and other seafood a few times a month. But if we want to keep it that way, we need to stop the spread of coal burning power plants in south Georgia.
There are three ways for Georgians to make a difference and protect their families from mercury.
Step #1: Get the facts about mercury pollution. The Georgia Environmental Protection Division has published comprehensive guidelines for how to eat local seafood safely.
Step #2: Conserve energy at home. If enough of us do our part, simple steps like turning the lights off in empty rooms or when leaving the house, or using energy-efficient light bulbs, add up to make a big difference in the amount of electricity that south Georgia uses -- and how many coal burning power plants we need. We can also reduce the amount of mercury that’s already making its way into the rivers and start to clean up mercury pollution.
Step #3: Send a message. The Ogeechee Riverkeeper, which is working to raise awareness about mercury poisoning in Georgia, has published an online energy saving pledge form. When people like us sign that pledge, we’re sending a message to electric utilities and environmental regulators that we’re going to do our part to keep local water clean and unpolluted -- and we want them to do theirs and deny the permits for the new power plants.
We like to think that south Georgia is a place where we can enjoy fresh air and clean country living. We want our children to grow up catching fish and eating seafood caught fresh from local waters.
Right now, there is a threat to those things, but it’s not too late to preserve them for future generations. Make a difference today! Get the facts, conserve energy at home, and send a message to power company and environmental regulators that you don’t want any more coal burning power plants in south Georgia.
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Eric Eckl is an environmental communication consultant who works with nature protection and pollution control organizations. Eric placed this article in this directory on behalf of the Ogeechee Riverkeeper, to help with their efforts to prevent mercury poisoning in Georgia.
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