Michigan’s environment is under attack by a dangerous chemical: mercury. But new state regulations could curtail its effects. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality announced regulations on Oct. 19 that will require significant cuts in the levels of mercury that coal-fired plants are permitted to emit. These regulations are necessary to protect Michigan’s environment, as well as state residents’ health, from the dangerous effects of mercury. The mercury restrictions put in place should serve as an example for the types of action that should be taken to protect the environment, and Michigan energy producers should jump at the chance to improve their emissions’ quality.

Michigan is the 19th state to regulate mercury emissions. Under the new regulations — which were under consideration for three years — coal-fired plants would be required to slash their mercury emissions by 90 percent of 1999 levels by 2015. Since these plants generate 60 percent of Michigan’s electricity, the impact of a reduction in emissions will be tangible. It is estimated that 3,600 less pounds of mercury will be released into the air each year.

Mercury pollution has a real effect on public health and the ecosystem. It permeates into the lakes and is extremely toxic to the human nervous system. Mercury from the atmosphere falls into waterways where it takes the form of methylmercury. The chemical infects small fish and plankton and can make its way up the food chain. In addition to disrupting the environment, this becomes dangerous to the public in the form of commonly eaten fish, which may contain unsafe levels of mercury. Regulating mercury emissions will make for cleaner water and a healthier environment.

And a healthy environment is undeniably vital to the state’s well-being. Tourism is Michigan’s third-largest industry, and environmental regulations will help preserve and increase the attractiveness of the state’s natural resources to visitors. The Great Lakes, for instance, will be in better condition once mercury emissions are seriously curbed. Fishing, among other things, depends upon a healthy ecosystem.

Reducing emissions levels so drastically is certainly an ambitious goal. But it often takes ambitious goals for any progress to be made. Even if every plant doesn’t reach the set goals, the result would still be a drastic reduction in mercury levels. Besides, technologies do exist for reducing the amount of mercury exiting power plants, like advanced scrubbers and carbon injectors. And lower mercury levels will be worth the potential rise in energy prices.

State mercury regulations can help better public health and improve the condition of Michigan’s environment. But federal coal plant mercury regulations would be even more valuable. Luckily, the Environmental Protection Agency plans to introduce such new regulations by November 2011. This implementation will not only bring down mercury emissions across the country, but also even the playing field for coal plants so that business is not disproportionately affected on a state-by-state basis.

Lower mercury emissions are conducive to healthier people and a better environment. The Michigan DEQ is correct to demand so much of the power producers — it conveys the message that the environment is serious business. Coal-fired power plants should embrace these regulations to help make Michigan healthier.

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