BOISE – State officials have rejected a request from an environmental group that sought to limit mercury emissions in Idaho, saying there isn’t enough information available to make a decision.
The state Department of Environmental Quality’s board of directors voted 4-2 on Friday to deny the petition by the Idaho Conservation League.
But the board then unanimously passed a resolution directing the department to gather more information in time for the board’s October meeting on the possible connection between Idaho mercury emissions into the air and mercury found in fish in state waterways.
The mercury-tainted fish can pose a health hazard if eaten. The state has issued warnings to anglers about consuming fish in 10 water bodies because of high mercury levels. High amounts of mercury can damage the human nervous system, particularly in developing fetuses.
The environmental group had sought to temporarily block new mercury emission permits until the state could come up with stricter rules. The group contends current rules fall short of protecting human health.
“What we need is action, not more meetings,” Justin Hayes, a spokesman for the conservation group, said after the petition was denied.
Still, he saw the passing of the second resolution as a slight victory. “We’re winning, but not on our time schedule,” he said.
Jayson Ronk, vice president of the Idaho Association of Commerce & Industry, had testified against the petition. He said he was pleased the board denied it.
He told board members there’s no evidence mercury found in fish in the state is coming from Idaho emissions. Other possibilities, he said, are mercury emitters from outside the state and mercury that occurs naturally in the environment.
“The (Idaho Conservation League’s) petition is a thinly veiled attempt to thwart pending permits,” he told board members.
The petition was filed ahead of a decision Environmental Quality is expected to announce soon in response to a request by Potlatch Corp., a Spokane-based forest products company that is Idaho’s largest private landowner.
The company wants to burn construction demolition materials and other waste at its Lewiston pulp mill to generate power, and has asked permission to annually emit 1,700 pounds of mercury.
That would be a significant increase in the amount of mercury emitted in Idaho. In 2006, about 684 pounds of mercury was emitted in the state, 659 of that from Monsanto Co.’s Soda Springs phosphate processing plant in eastern Idaho, the Environmental Protection Agency said.
The crux of the issue being considered by the board, and what board member Nick Purdy said was “definitely a hole in our regulations,” is how the state regulates mercury emissions into the air that may end up as pollution in water.
Currently, the state allows mercury emissions into the air based on how much of a threat they pose if inhaled. But the state does not take into account how much of a risk the mercury emissions pose to human health if the mercury collects in state waterways.
The 10 water bodies where the state has warned anglers not to eat too many fish include central Idaho’s famed Silver Creek. Testing by the department has so far found another 20 waterways that are expected to soon join that list. More testing is planned this summer.
Purdy, of Picabo, located near Silver Creek, said the connection between mercury emitted into the air and mercury found in Idaho fish was not clear, and joined three other board members in voting to deny the petition.
Board member Don Chisholm, of Burley, who voted to allow the petition to proceed, said the board was “dithering” and argued that the state should begin the process of looking at strengthening mercury emission rules before more permit applications are submitted.
“Fish ought to be consumable,” he said.
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