Thursday, December 29, 2011

EPA's Christmas Present

DSC_0991Every Wednesday night, my daughter eats a large piece of fish.  That might not seem so amazing, except that Ana is three, and picky even by three-year-old standards, so her weekly slab of cod or haddock is completely out of character.  Of course, that weekly out-of-body experience does not come without some parental involvement, and the rules here, which she enforces with ruthless consistency, require that while Ana eats, my wife or I must tell her a story about a girl and a fish.  We’re responsible for fleshing out content, but she usually dictates the general plot.  It almost invariably involves going out on a boat with her grandfather and her friends, catching a few fish, and eating them for lunch.

And there lies a sad twinge of irony.  In Maine, at least, I would never let that story come true.  There are fish consumption advisories on almost every freshwater fish in every lake, river, and stream in the state (some ocean fish, like the groundfish we usually buy, contain lower levels).  The reason is mercury contamination, much of it carried on the wind from out-of-state power plants. 

Thankfully, last week EPA passed new mercury rules for power plants, and thus took a big and long-overdue step toward rectifying that situation.  And, predictably, it has been pilloried by industry groups and their Congressional supporters.   But to me, this seems beyond reasonable argument.  When an activity as common, as traditional—indeed, as culturally ingrained--as catching and eating freshwater fish has been effectively taken away from an entire state (and of course, the impacts aren’t just to Maine), it seems clear, to me at least, that an effective regulatory response is not just economically but also ethically compelled.

EPA’s new rule probably won’t allow Ana to safely eat freshwater fish caught with her grandfather in Maine.  Environmental mercury levels take a very long time to decline, and she’s growing up fast.  But perhaps one day, when she takes her granddaughter fishing, those fish consumption advisories will seem like tales of the burning Cuyahoga River—exhibits of environmental absurdity from eras past, resolved, thankfully, by the intervention of environmental regulators and environmental law.

-Dave Owen

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