Friday, April 25, 2008

State should protect waterways from mercury

Idaho's picturesque mountains and woodland wonders can be deceiving. What may appear to be pristine environmental purity wherever one looks could be hiding insidious chemical poisons creeping unseen into the state's air and water.

Evidence shows that Idaho's waterways face a threat from a deadly form of industrial mercury, methylmercury, which morphs into a lethal chemical when combined with the biology of waterways.

During the commendable crackdown on mercury emissions into the air from Nevada gold mines near the Idaho border, environmental investigators found mercury in Idaho waterways, including the Silver Creek Preserve. Moreover, fish consumption advisories are now in effect in several south-central Idaho waterways where mercury could taint fish.

Today, the Idaho Board of Environmental Quality will meet in Boise to discuss, among other items, a petition from the Idaho Conservation League to expand mercury regulations to cover waterways.

Such a tough new regulation to monitor waterway mercury pollution and stop industrial dumping is an urgent and indispensable first step on behalf of public safety.

The ultimate goal, however, should be a regional system of state environmental regulations to detect and ban chemical pollutants in waterways coursing through several states. The sinister movement of colorless air and water poisons does not respect state boundaries. Chemicals dumped hundreds of miles away in other states could easily contaminate Idaho's waterways.

This is serious business. Ingestion of mercury by humans through food, water or the air can lead to birth defects and brain damage or worse.

Never before have state lawmakers everywhere been confronted with such regulatory demands to protect public health. The rapid expansion of toxic chemicals in consumer and industrial products has not been met by corresponding controls, which usually are opposed by industry lobbyists and therefore politically difficult for legislators.

It would be outright negligence and the height of irresponsibility for Idaho to ignore the perilous threat of mercury in its famous lakes, rivers and streams, which lure tens of thousands of boaters, fishermen and swimmers.

If Gov. Butch Otter and legislators need a refresher, they can remind themselves of the reason for, and the cost of, the nation's SuperFund, which was created to clean up billions of dollars in chemical and mining pollution that destroyed the inhabitability of whole towns and uprooted tens of thousands of homeowners.

Idaho can head off the potential for a major pollution crisis, and the resulting economic losses in recreation and tourism, by heeding ICL's mercury warnings and acting now to establish tough standards.

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