Coal plants may fuel autism

In 2005, Texas coal plants, refineries, and cement companies released 43,000 pounds of toxic mercury and mercury compounds into the air, land, and waters of our state — a 10,700-pound increase over 2000 levels. During this period, scientific evidence linking mercury exposure with neurological problems in fetal development was increasing even more dramatically.

This month, as a federal appeals court struck down the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “cap-and-trade” mercury policy as a violation of the Clean Air Act, the link between mercury emissions and autism rates tightened around coal-fired power plants like such as the City-owned CPS coal plants at Calaveras Lake.

The same San Antonio researchers who made international news in 2005 with a paper demonstrating that Texas counties with higher levels of mercury pollution tended to have higher rates of autism, have a second blow in store for polluting industries: “Proximity to Point Sources of Environmental Mercury Release: Associations with Longitudinal Rates of Change in Autism Prevalence.” The paper, accepted for publication in the respected U.K. journal Health & Place, shows even more conclusively that distance matters.

The closer one lives to an industrial emitter of mercury, such as a chemical plant or cement company, the greater the likelihood his or her children will develop autism, the report says.

While the same distance-to-autism ratio did not hold true for coal-fired power plants, the paper does show that as mercury levels from coal-fired power plants increase, so do autism rates.

“With the manufacturing, distance was a factor. With the coal-fired power plants, distance wasn’t so much a factor, but magnitude of emissions, the number of coal-fired power plants in your area, made a difference,” Steve Blanchard, sociology professor at Our Lady of the Lake University said. “We figured that was because those stacks are so high in the air, that when they emit they’re way above the surface winds and they may head down 20, 30, 40, 50 miles … It wasn’t so much how close you were, but how much emissions there was and many of the plants there were in your area — so there was a link nonetheless.”

By directly tagging the proximity and magnitude of local sources of mercury pollution, the report severely damages utility claims that whatever mercury contamination may be occurring is just as likely to be wafting over from plants as far away as China, now busily constructing about one coal plant each week.

“You can see why someone who owns a power plant or someone who owns a manufacturer would not be happy with this. Because it establishes a somewhat more clear link between their activities and the risk itself,” Blanchard said, “and they can’t say it’s about what blows in the prevailing winds out of the Orient. It is actually what’s in the prevailing winds from the power plant here in the city.”

The prevailing belief about autism is that it may be caused by the meeting of certain genetic dispositions with an environmental “trigger,” said Hugo Hernandez, director of client services at Any Baby Can, a local non-profit that works with the families of children who have chronic illnesses and disabilities. Increasingly over the years, those clients have included parents of children with autism.

Because there is still little understanding about how autism is caused — and there is no known cure — parents often struggle with deep feelings of guilt for any of a variety of actions that likely have no bearing on their children’s condition, Hernandez said.

But there is not much people can do about where they live, he agreed, particularly poorer residents.

EPA figures show that between 2000 and 2005 the number of facilities in Bexar County pumping out mercury increased from 114 to 128. During that time, CPS’s coal plants reduced their total mercury emissions from 760 pounds to 517 pounds. However, a new plant, the Spruce 2, is expected to go on in 2010, adding another 140 pounds per year of mercury, according to CPS staff.

Additional questions about mercury emissions, the timeline for the company’s pollution upgrades, or how the recent federal ruling would affect that timetable were answered by email by a CPS spokesperson who simply copied and pasted information from the company website:

“CPS Energy is investing more than $200 million in the best-available emissions-control technology and equipment on Spruce 2. Another $500 million is being spent to upgrade emissions controls on the existing units adjacent to Spruce 2. Emissions reductions from existing plants will more than offset emissions from the new plant and reduce overall coal emissions by more than 60 percent.”

Spokesperson Theresa Brown Cortez said CPS released 526 pounds of mercury in 2006, but did not include those emissions categorized “mercury compounds,” which are mostly mercury, according to the state Sierra Club’s Clean Air Director Neil Carmen.

More than a dozen states and even more Native American tribes and citizen groups sued the EPA in 2005 to include coal plants in the agency’s more stringent mercury-reduction measures. Texas was not one of those states.

“The federal court agrees with the American Medical Association that EPA’s flawed mercury program for coal plants is hazardous to our health,” Vickie Patton, an attorney with Environmental Defense, said in a prepared statement.

“It was a sham rule. It was a dirty mercury rule,” said Carmen.

Since medical- and hazardous-waste incinerators adopted 90-percent reduction goals in the mid-1990s, a dramatic reduction of toxic methylmercury has been shown in fish populations near facilities in both Florida and Massachusetts, he added.

“It shows that the rule works and it works quickly — not only in the plant, but in the environment,” Carmen said.

CPS’s new Spruce is not the state’s only new coal plant under design or construction. TXU still plans to build three of the 13 it had originally proposed to a wail of protest. One is slated to help power an Alcoa aluminum plant, which is already responsible for 2,652 pounds of mercury and mercury-compound emissions in Rockdale and Point Comfort.

A new Toxic Release Inventory for 2006 numbers is due out in the next few weeks.

The report’s other authors, Ray Palmer, Claudia Miller, and Robert Wood, all of UT Health Science Center’s San Antonio Department of Family and Community Medicine, could not be reached for comment. •


Bexar County mercury releases
CPS Sommers/Deely/Spruce Complex, Gardner Road :
760 lbs
Alamo Cement Co., W. Green Mountain Road : 24 lbs
Capitol Aggregates LTD, Nacogdoches Road : 12 lbs
CPS Braunig/Rosenberg Complex, Streich Road : 5 lbs

CPS Sommers/Deely/Spruce Complex, Gardner Road :
517 lbs
Alamo Cement Co., W. Green Mountain Road : 25 lbs
Capitol Aggregates LTD, Nacogdoches Road : 12 lbs

(Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

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