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Idaho gauges mercury problem

TWIN FALLS, Idaho – Officials with the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality say the agency is getting closer to being able to catalog sources of mercury in the state.

The department won’t be able to pinpoint every source of mercury by October, when the department’s governing board meets, said Martin Bauer, head of the DEQ’s air quality division. But workers will likely be able to tell board members how to gather and analyze that information, Bauer said.

The Idaho Conservation League asked the Board of Environmental Quality to start developing guidelines on mercury air emissions in the state. The board turned down that request, but the department did start determining what it would take to create a complete emissions inventory for the state, including industrial, natural and global sources.

Bauer said once officials see how much an inventory would cost and how long it would take, they can decide the next steps, including how to control emissions.

Controlling those emissions won’t be easy. Bauer said mercury contamination from around the globe has more of an effect on Idaho waters than contamination from sources inside the state.

“We could zero-out the industrial sources and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference,” he said.

One sign of that, he said, is a recent statewide advisory regarding high mercury levels in bass. It was the first such advisory not to focus on a specific body of water, demonstrating broader contamination than a local source would provide, he said.

Most of the information on mercury inside Idaho comes from the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory database, which contains reports from industrial polluters about what they’re releasing into the air.