For Immediate Release - February 12, 2014

Patrick Administration Announces Statewide Mercury Level Reductions in Freshwater Fish

MassDEP Research Study Connects Mercury Emission Regulations to Drop in Fish Contamination

BOSTON – The Patrick Administration today announced a significant drop in toxic mercury levels in two types of freshwater game fish that is linked to the Commonwealth reducing mercury emissions by more than 90 percent from waste incinerators, power plants and other sources in Massachusetts. The drop in mercury levels is reflected in recently published data.

“Mercury pollution takes a significant toll on our natural resources and the health of our citizens, and is one of the most potent toxins to children,” said Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Rick Sullivan. “This great news demonstrates that comprehensive, long-term efforts to address serious environmental problems can make a difference in our environment and our lives.”

Mercury Levels Down in Freshwater Fish

The data shows that in a mercury “hotspot” near several solid waste incinerators, levels of mercury in largemouth bass and yellow perch dropped by more than 40 percent after localized mercury emissions were cut by 98 percent. The data also shows a 13 percent statewide mercury reduction in largemouth bass and a 19 percent reduction in yellow perch between 1999 and 2011.
The study, published by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP), demonstrates that the drop in mercury levels in fish is tied to the Commonwealth’s world-leading efforts to reduce sources of mercury pollution, eliminate unnecessary mercury uses and enhance recycling of mercury-added products.

Through the Massachusetts Zero Mercury Strategy and the regional Mercury Action Plan, Massachusetts has reduced its mercury emissions by more than 90 percent since the late 1990s. The efforts included improved pollution controls on coal-fired power plants, municipal solid waste combustors, medical waste incinerators and the dental sector. Legislation prohibiting many unnecessary uses of mercury in consumer products and enhanced recycling of mercury products was also adopted. The Patrick Administration has ensured that Massachusetts’ regulations on mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants have been effectively implemented to meet stringent 2008 and 2012 emission reduction targets.

Despite these improvements, the study also reveals that fish from many Massachusetts lakes and ponds remain unsafe to eat. Massachusetts and the New England states lead the nation in mercury reduction efforts, but mercury pollution is carried by the wind across borders.

“The drop in fish mercury levels seen in this study is very impressive and confirms that environmental regulations can and do work. But more can be done,” said MassDEP Commissioner Kenneth Kimmell. “We will continue to work with our regional and national partners, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to ensure that our lakes and ponds can again support a healthy freshwater ecosystem.”

“EPA applauds the work done by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to reduce emissions of mercury, and we are impressed with the tangible results from this work,” said Curt Spalding, regional administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s New England office. “Exposure to mercury can cause very serious health effects, and most human exposure is by eating contaminated fish or shellfish. These results show that peoples’ health is being better protected.”

Once released into the environment, mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants, incineration of wastes containing mercury and other sources can be transformed into methyl-mercury. The toxic methyl-mercury then concentrates as it moves up the aquatic food-chain and can reach unsafe levels in certain types of fish. Depending on the level of exposure, it has the potential to harm brain development in the fetus and children, as well as neurological and immune systems in adults.

For more than a decade, MassDEP scientists sampled largemouth bass and yellow perch in 23 lakes and ponds across the Commonwealth. The fish were analyzed for mercury concentrations. Mercury reductions were observed over the second half of the sampling period following the significant mercury emission reductions. The results of the MassDEP research study appear in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. The research paper can be seen here:

“I am pleased to see our efforts to eliminate mercury emissions from the environment have had a positive impact on our ecosystem and on public health,” said Senator Marc R. Pacheco, Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture. “We must continue to press for stronger mercury disposal regulations to make sure all freshwater fish can be utilized safely as a food and economic resource for the Commonwealth.”

“A healthy fish stock is vital to Massachusetts,” said Representative Anne Gobi, House Chair of the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture. “The various programs implemented by MassDEP are showing positive results in protecting our waterways by reducing mercury and other harmful contaminants.”

“These excellent results in the Commonwealth indicate that mercury is a solvable problem,” said Michael Bender, director of the US-based Mercury Policy Project and international coordinator of the Zero Mercury Working Group. “With the adoption of national controls and the new Minamata Convention on Mercury, we are on our way to a zero mercury future.”

“We should all celebrate that the Commonwealth's work to reduce mercury pollution from power plants, consumer products and other sources has been effective, and that there is movement towards the regional goal of virtual elimination of mercury emissions,” said Elizabeth Saunders, Massachusetts Director of Clean Water Action. “However, there is no known safe level of mercury, and so our work is far from done.”

MassDEP is responsible for ensuring clean air and water, safe management and recycling of solid and hazardous wastes, timely cleanup of hazardous waste sites and spills and the preservation of wetlands and coastal resources.