New York State
Ornithological Association

For the birders and birds of the Empire State

ConservationPosted 11/1/11
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An Opportunity to Lessen Mercury Impacts on Birds
Andy Mason, NYSOA Conservation Committee
Published in the July 2011 issue of NY Birders

As conservationists, we recognize that birds face many threats in the modern world. Some of these—habitat destruction, tower and window strikes, intentional poisonings, e.g.--are obvious and visible, even if not easily resolved. Other threats are less apparent, but more insidious.

All birders know the story of how DDT devastated populations of long-lived species such as Bald Eagle and Brown Pelican in the first half of the 20th century. The effects of the chemical were not recognized until several species were on the brink of extinction. Today, substances in the environment still endanger birds, but we do not have the excuse of ignorance to avoid action.

One of these—the heavy metal mercury—is well-documented in its effects on birds. Studies have shown that mercury damages the central nervous system. It tends to disrupt vision and muscle coordination, and is quite toxic to developing embryos. It also weakens immunity, making the birds susceptible to other diseases. Species such as loons, cormorants, eagles, and even Bicknell’s Thrush have been found with elevated mercury blood levels. Forest- dwelling songbirds may face a double whammy as acidified soil reduces the amount of the necessary element calcium available, but increases mercury in the food chain.

Most of the mercury pollution that reaches the northeastern U.S. is spewed into the atmosphere by large coal-burning power plants and municipal waste incinerators in the Midwest and central Canada. In addition to the effects on birds and other wildlife, mercury levels and negative health impacts are on the rise in humans as a result.

Incredibly, mercury from power plants has been totally unregulated by the Clean Air Act, until now. The US Environmental Protection Agency has announced a significant rule to reduce emissions of mercury—along with arsenic, lead, dioxins, acid gas, and six dozen other toxic chemicals that power plants are now able to freely dump into our air.

However, the coal industry and electric utilities are making every effort to weaken this rule and continue business as usual. It appears they have an ear in Congress, and are using the threat of job losses and economic hardship to make their case, despite the fact that these companies are highly profitable, and that their activities have untold costs in the health of humans and wildlife.

What you can do—The EPA has extended the public comment period on its proposed rule governing power plant emissions until August 4. Birders need to let the agency know that this ongoing pollution and threat to the environment cannot continue, and that the proposed rule should not be weakened.

There are several ways to submit comments:

  • Via Follow the on-line instructions for submitting comments.
  • E-mail: Comments may be sent by electronic mail (e-mail) to
  • By fax to: 202-566-1741.
  • By mail to: Air and Radiation Docket and Information Center, Environmental Protection Agency,
    Mail Code: 2822T, 1200 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, DC, 20460.

Comments should be identified as for Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OAR-2009-0234.

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