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ERIE COUNTY, OH – Lake Erie Mercury Deposits

February 15, 2010

by The Erie Wire

02/11/10 - Darla Peelle from the Public Interest Center reads from a document to collect formal statements regarding the mercury variance for Sawmill Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant.

The Great Lakes Initiative is finding new life as the Environmental Protection Agency continues to hold hearings on the issuance of variance permits that will limit the monthly discharge of mercury to 3.5ng/l (nanograms per liter) in surface water concentrations. Thirty-five (35) facilities have applied or are scheduled to respond to this variance, while forty-three (43) facilities already received a mercury variance in the Northwest District.

The goal is to identify and reduce mercury discharges to a steady monthly concentration of 1.3ng/l by 2013, a level decided by federal rule to help restore the Great Lakes. According to the mercury variance document, “Ohio EPA’s human health criterion for mercury was 12 ng/l statewide, prior to adoption of the Great Lakes Initiative rules in 1997. Those rules added wildlife criteria for the Lake Erie basin, resulting in more stringent average limits.”


Rick Zuzik, EPA environmental scientist, speaks to a small audience in Huron, OH, on a pending mercury variance.

“Sawmill Creek cannot meet the new limit by November 10, 2010, and it’s unachievable without the installation of prohibitively expensive technologies for large WWTP’s, however, they can meet a higher projected monthly average variance limit of 3.5 ng/l, and an annual average limit of 12 ng/l on a consistent basis,” says Rick Zuzik, an environmental scientist for the Northwest District office of the EPA.


Listen to Rick Zuzik’s Speech and the Q&A.


In order for a facility to discharge pollutants into a waterway, they must apply for a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit, required by the Clean Water Act (CWA), which acts to regulate point source pollutants to make the waterway safe for recreational use. When a facility is issued a variance, they’re relieved from demonstrating the “widespread social and economic impact” of the discharged pollutant.

Kathie Mueller, a social worker, questioning the EPA on the safety of the variance.

Kathie Mueller, a social worker who attended the meeting for the Sawmill Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, was uneasy about any presence of mercury in the waterway, “My concern is a nanogram here and there, the cumulative effect of all of these companies applying; since it doesn’t sound like a whole lot for one creek but we have all of those (discharges)… and we’re at the southern most point of the basin?”

Mercury is bioaccumulative, meaning it accumulates over time in the ecosystem. Assuming a variance is issued to all seventy-eight (78) applicants and their facilities discharge 3.5ng/l per month, is there an accumulation putting the public at risk? To find out, you need to know the average flow of water from each facility and use a formula to calculate the total amount of mercury discharged. An annual average would be difficult to predict. (see formula)

Bob Sennish, representing Sawmill Creek Wastewater Plant, submitting his formal statement to the EPA.

Bob Sennish, from the Sawmill Creek Wastewater Treatment plant, submitted a formal statement (read statement), wherein he tried to put into perspective the amount of mercury being discussed, “a part per trillion is comparable to one drop in a swimming pool the size of a football field that’s forty-three (43) feet deep.” Bob says his facility is working to reduce the amount of mercury effluent.
Erie County has begun sampling upstream and downstream to identify the source of mercury pollution as required by the permit. The findings will be reported in the first Pollutant Minimization Plan (PMP) scheduled for March 2011. This is to help minimize the effluence of mercury in the watershed by pinpointing the source and removing the mercury, as mandated in the PMP.

All in all, the efforts to minimize mercury from surface waters still fail to meet a 1985 goal of the Clean Water Act, which states as its first objective “it is the national goal that the discharge of pollutants into the navigable waters be eliminated by 1985.” Skeptics of the CWA believe this statement is unobtainable and out of reach, while local environmentalists disagree: They say the public wants “safe and clean waterways, period.”

Below is a list of known sources for mercury concentrations:

Click on image for PDF of Sawmill Creek Mercury Variance Application

Click on image for PDF of Sawmill Creek Mercury Variance Application


Important note: (from mercury variance guidance document)A – No. A permittee that applies for a general mercury variance is required to develop both a POS and PMP. If both of these are implemented, and the twelve most recent months of mercury sampling results indicate that the average WQBEL was not met, the Ohio EPA will review both the POS and PMP to ensure that they were correctly implemented. If it is found that the POS and PMP were implemented but the permittee cannot meet an AAMEC of 12ng/l consistently, the permittee would consider an individual variance. If a review of the individual variance application excludes them from coverage, the permittee will be required to meet the average WQBEL.


added to Lake Erie Water Pollutant series

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