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Guest editorial: Continuing to invest in pollution makes no cents

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Posted on January 25, 2016 |
By James Ehlers



Our governor recently joined the growing call to divest public funds from coal and ExxonMobil. Some folks are asking why we should move away from these assets as the projections of future climate change impacts are still contentious. I believe the real question should be: Given the horrendous environmental impacts from the burning of fossil fuels that have already occurred and are still happening now, why have we stayed invested so long?

The burning of fossil fuels, and especially the burning of coal, has resulted in the widespread destruction of Vermont’s water quality and the severe impairment of our fisheries. These impacts have been well documented and are widely accepted. Fossil-fuel combustion is responsible for acid rain, eutrophication, and mercury contamination of fish and of wildlife. This threatens human health, destroys ecosystems, reduces property values and damages our local economies.

Acid pre-cursors, brought north in precipitation, accumulate in our most sensitive and remote lakes in the Green Mountains and Kingdom where the natural features of these water bodies are not sufficient to buffer the effects, resulting in “dead” water bodies where native fish, amphibian, insect and mollusk species cannot survive.

In these areas, acidity can be an intense stressor to surface waters with moderate to severe biological impacts. Based on a recent statistically based survey, up to 16 percent of Vermont lakes manifest signs of acid stress, while 3 percent of lakes are acid-impaired. An additional 160 miles of assessed streams are stressed or impaired due to acidity. It is coal burning — principally in the Midwest — that is the culprit for Vermont’s acidic waters.

Fossil-fuel combustion also contributes to the accelerated eutrophication of lakes and ponds, through the deposition of nitrogen oxides that enter aquatic systems. Eutrophication stimulates algal blooms, resulting in fish kills, loss of species diversity and cyanobacteria outbreaks, which can and do produce neurotoxins dangerous to human health and the health of our pets. The eutrophication issues on Lake Champlain, Lake Carmi and Shelburne Pond are so severe that economic impacts are now being felt in the surrounding communities.

Last, but not at all least, the deposition of mercury as a result of fossil fuel combustion has resulted in widespread destruction in Vermont. Over 90 percent of mercury contamination is from out-of-state emission sources. The combustion of coal for energy production produces the majority of mercury deposited onto the landscape and eventually entering watersheds of Vermont. Despite this pollution coming from out of state, it is Vermonters who pay the price, both with their tax dollars required for cleanup efforts and in economic losses to businesses dependent on our state’s natural resources. 

Mercury accumulates in lake sediments and the resulting water-soluble methyl-mercury biomagnifies in animal tissues at concentrations many times higher than in the water or air. Methyl-mercury is highly toxic and easily assimilated at the base of aquatic food chains. Through the processes of biomagnification, minute concentrations of methyl-mercury are passed up food chains, increasing to levels that pose a significant threat to organisms feeding at the top of the aquatic food web, including humans. The physiological consequences of methyl-mercury contamination include liver, kidney and central nervous system dysfunction.

A recent study by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the children of women who consumed large quantities of mercury-tainted fish during pregnancy showed the clearest evidence of mercury poisoning. The primary health effect of methylmercury is impaired neurological development. Symptoms of methylmercury poisoning may include muscle weakness; lack of coordination of movements; impairment of speech, hearing and walking; impairment of the peripheral vision; and disturbances in sensations.

The most widespread cause of impaired neurological development is from consumption of fish tissue — also the source of Omega-3 — a critical protein needed for brain development. According to the Agency of Natural resources, all 174,175 Vermont acres of Lake Champlain have been impacted by atmospheric deposition of mercury, along with 66 miles of rivers and streams. Vermont’s inland lakes are not immune, either, from atmospheric contamination, with 45,859 lake acres affected. Deposition of pollutants (mercury, sulfate, nitrous oxides) to the Vermont landscape from the atmosphere has been principally responsible for the impairment of fish consumption and the consequences thereof.

Vermonters have worked hard to protect and clean our state’s greatest assets, our lakes, rivers and forests, and Vermonters have paid for much of this effort with their tax dollars. It’s time to stop funding the problem and begin investing in solutions. As we move towards a cleaner environment with renewable energy supporting a clean water economy, it is time to stop polluting our own waters for want of “profits” from investing in the fossil-fuel companies that create pollution and health problems here.

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