Gino DiCaro

State water board remands bay mercury plan

By Gino DiCaro, VP, Communications

Capitol Update, Sept. 9, 2005 Share this on FacebookTweet thisEmail this to a friend

The State Water Resources Board (SWRB) on Wednesday, September 7, rejected the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board's (SFBRWQCB) proposed Total Mass Daily Load (TMDL) plan for reducing mercury levels in San Francisco Bay.  The SWRB stated that the plan did not adequately address municipal and industrial wastewater discharges.    

The Bay's mercury pollution problem dates back to the Gold Rush days, when miners used mercury to separate gold from ore and elements. Abandoned mines in the Sierra Nevada are still leaching mercury into rivers that empty into the bay.  More than 1,000 pounds of mercury comes from these mines every year.  Less than 1 percent of the mercury in the Bay comes from point sources such as municipal sewer agencies and manufacturers.  That's because these point source dischargers already have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to improve water quality as required under state and federal laws.  

The S.F. regional board's plan, developed over 5 years, logically concluded that to reduce mercury pollution, the clean-up must focus on reducing mercury from the primary source of mercury - the legacy of gold and mercury mines.  It also required point sources to cut mercury releases by 40 percent over the next 20 years.  

Environmental justice groups argued that the plan was not aggressive enough and that it would take 120 years to clean up the Bay.  Minorities, due to their culture, would continue to eat fish caught in the Bay (in spite of postings) and suffer the effects of the polluted water.  Mercury can impair neurological development in fetuses and children and has been known to cause tremors, memory loss and other problems in adults.   Prominent among the opposition were the Natural Resources Defense Council, Baykeepers and Clean Water Action.

A significant number of representatives for utility districts, industry and communities both in the Bay Area and across the state testified in support of the SFBRWQCB's plan and were concerned that the SWRB's decision would set a precedent for future reviews of regional board actions.  The "Version 2" plan option adopted by the SWRB will likely increase sewer fees for Bay Area ratepayers by $80 to $300 million more per year.

Burton Wolfe, executive director of the SFBRWQCB, said the state's rejection would delay the long-term goal of reducing pollution, because it requires lengthy studies that may do little to reduce the overall amount of new mercury pollution being released into the bay. Wolfe said, "It slows the actual implementation of the mercury controls and directs us to do more study.  In our mind, that's a waste of time and resources when we should be getting on to restoring the Bay.''

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