Front Porch Blog

Another Mercury Emitting Coal-fired Power Plant in Hampton Roads, Va: Adding Insult to Injury

Everyone knows that mercury is a toxic substance. We have all been told to never hold the mercury from a broken thermometer and to handle broken compact fluorescent light bulbs with care for the miniscule amount of mercury they contain. Mercury thermometers are now no longer allowed on many public school campuses. You may have heard the somewhat antiquated expression, “he/she is as mad as a hatter” and know that it is derived from the fact that hatters used to use mercury in making hats. Mercury poisoning can lead to neurological disorders, mood swings, lack of ability to speak, aggressiveness and a wide assortment of ailments that can cause a person to be perceived as ‘mad’. To this day mercury poisoning is sometimes referred to casually as, “Mad Hatters Disease”.

Coal-fired power plants are one of the largest sources of pollution in our country. They emit thousands of pounds of toxic mercury pollution every year, as well as arsenic, lead and acid gases, putting families at risk. Coal fired power plants produce approximately 48 tons of mercury into the air each year across the country.

To paraphrase from a Sierra Club fact sheet on mercury:

Mercury from coal-fired power plants is released into the air and then rains down into our lakes, streams, and other waters. Mercury in water is converted into the most toxic form (methylmercury) by aquatic organisms, which are eaten by fish, poisoning them and the animals that eat them, causing death, reduced fertility and reproductive failure. Mercury can also make its way to our dinner tables via contaminated fish. Once ingested, mercury acts as a potent neurotoxin and can cause damage to the brain and nervous system.

Pregnant women and children are at greatest risk from mercury exposure, especially if they consume large amounts of fish and seafood. Exposure to mercury in utero can contribute to birth defects including neurological and developmental disorders, learning disabilities, delayed onset of walking and talking, and cerebral palsy.

Over 30 people, many of them either pregnant or of child bearing age came out to Virginia Beach’s Best Body Company last week to take part in the Sierra Club’s and the Wise Energy for Virginia Coalition’s free mercury hair testing event. Though they won’t have the results for three more weeks, they wanted to see what their individual levels of mercury are, as well as their children’s. Luckily, if a woman is in the high risk zone for fetal complications due to mercury poisoning, she can phase out mercury laden foods to bring her levels down and bring her to a low risk level. However, most people are not that conscious of their mercury intake or knowledgeable of what fish are high in mercury. In Hampton Roads seafood and freshwater fish are on dinner plates and served in restaurants in high numbers.

There are currently 8 significant mercury emitters in and upwind of Hampton Roads, most of them coal-fired power plants. While we may be stuck with several existing coal plants concentrated in and around Hampton Roads we are fortunate enough to have developed new, non-polluting technologies such as wind power which, according to the Virginia Coastal Energy Research Consortium, can provide 20% of our electricity needs. In Virginia, we also have tremendous potential for energy efficiency -making our houses, schools, factories, and workplaces actually decrease their electricity use through increased insulation, and more efficient windows and appliances. What is also great about investing in energy efficiency is that it could create as many as 10,000 Virginia jobs while keeping electricity demand absolutely flat, despite a growing population, for the foreseeable future.

A sign on the Blackwater River in Surry County

A sign on the Blackwater River

Knowing the alternatives, it is very curious then that the Old Dominion Electric Cooperative (ODEC) is currently pursuing permits to build what would be the largest coal-fired power plant in the state, a whopping 1,500 megawatts, in Surry County. Since Dominion Virginia Power services the vast majority of Hampton Roads, almost none of this power would be going to serve the region, yet it is Hampton Roads that is going to be receiving the brunt of the pollution. In addition to emitting regionally problematic pollutants such as nitrogen, which we are spending millions to clean out of the Chesapeake Bay, and ground level ozone which make it hard on asthmatics, the proposed coal plant would emit 44 pounds of mercury into the air each year.

44 pounds may seem like a small amount until you consider that as little as gram of mercury (about a drop) falling on a 20 acre lake annually for just a few years can cause the fish to have high enough concentrations of mercury to contaminate humans that eat them. Eight Hampton Roads rivers and lakes are already under federal fish consumption advisories for mercury contamination. We are advised to eat no more than one fish a month from some of these waterways. In other waterways women of child bearing age and children are warned against eating a single fish at any point. The swamps that feed the Blackwater and Nottaway Rivers, Lake Drummond, and the Dismal Swamps are all rife with the conditions and bacteria that convert mercury from coal-fired power plants into the ingestible and more dangerous methylmercury that bio-accumulates up the food chain until it gets onto our plates in the form of dangerously tasty tuna, shellfish, or bass. The 44 pounds of mercury that the proposed ODEC plant in Surry County would emit translates to 19,958 grams of mercury a year. In the map below you can see the mercury impaired waters in red.

Old Dominion Electric Cooperative is working hard to gain approval for their behemoth of a coal plant through the Army Corps of Engineers and is also working hard to publicly defame Surry County land owners who are suing ODEC because they refused to properly advertise the vote that lead to local zoning approval of the project back in February of 2010. They have even been sending their team of high powered lawyers to lobby downwind communities like Virginia Beach trying to convince them not to publicly oppose the project for the health and financial detriments it would bring to Virginia’s largest city. Luckily Virginia Beach listened to their constituents and health groups has committed to publicly oppose the project. ODEC is actively pursuing approval.

ODEC is actively trying to add insult to injury by trying to get approval to build a seemingly unnecessary coal-fired power plant upwind of an area already violating federal standards for ground level ozone and with 8 existing bodies of water that are dangerously contaminated with mercury.

The permitting process is a slow one, and ODEC doesn’t expect a decision from the Army Corps for at least a year. This gives everyone in Hampton Roads a great opportunity to weigh in with their City Councils and County Board of Supervisors about this ill-conceived project. All the communities in the region sit on the Hampton Roads Regional Planning District Commission, including those that approved the project in Surry County (and hastily I might add) despite a massive public cry for the opposite from their own constituents. Surry has already upset regional communities by refusing Isle of Wight’s request for an independent study of the downwind economic effects from the pollution. A Surry Board of Supervisor, with tax dollars on his mind, said that such a study would, “only mess up our decision making process.” Localities like Hampton City, Newport News, Portsmouth, Chesapeake, Franklin, Norfolk, etc can join Virginia Beach (and the town of Surry, in Surry County) in opposing this project -but they won’t do it on their own. Every Hampton Roads government needs to hear from their constituents of every age and race, that they need to publicly oppose this project.

If you live in Hampton Roads please take the time to speak at a City Council or Board of Supervisors meeting. If public speaking isn’t your thing, call them up or write a letter. You can also write letters to the editor of your local newspaper on the subject, educating thousands.. There are several of us that would love to help you accomplish any of these things. If you are interested contact me, Mike McCoy at 434-293-6373 and mike(at) and I, or one of my colleagues, can walk you through one of several ways to help.

The first and easiest way for everyone to help, no matter where you live is to sign the letter to the Army Corps of Engineers. You can sign it by clicking HERE.

You can also help support the EPA’s effort to create stricter mercury limits, and learn a ton more about mercury on the Sierra Club’s website here.

To learn more about this proposed coal plant click here.





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  1. Hillary Vansoest on August 3, 2012 at 8:25 am

    There have been reports of American Oystercatchers eating Piping Plover eggs and chasing young chicks. The two species nest in close proximity to each other. Interestingly, the the oystercatchers set up their territories and start nesting before the plovers arrive. PACE University is conducting a focused study on this, looking at the extent of these types of encounters. NYC Audubon is working with a student from Columbia University to document human disturbance impacts on oystercatcher nest success. If you observe any interactions positive or negative please let us know!Thanks for your comments. -Susan

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