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Public Statements

Message to Maine "Congress Enacts Mercury Export Ban"

Op-Ed

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Message to Maine "Congress Enacts Mercury Export Ban"

By
U.S. Representative Tom Allen
1st Congressional District of Maine

On September 29th, Congress sent the Mercury Export Ban Act of 2008 (S.906), to the White House for the President's signature. The bill, which I introduced in March, 2007 with U.S. Senators Barack Obama (D-IL) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), had passed the House and Senate by overwhelming margins.

I am proud that my legislation will remove a significant amount of mercury from the global market and lessen the threat this substance poses to the people of Maine, the nation, and the world. The measure is part of my decade-long battle to combat mercury pollution, a crusade that began in the middle of a trout stream in the Maine North Woods.

Since I was a boy, fly-fishing has been my passion. In 1997, the Maine Bureau of Health began posting warnings against consuming fish caught in Maine waters. The signs along shorelines and riverbanks were prompted by the dangerous levels of mercury that were being found in Maine's fish, waterfowl, eagles and other creatures. Even in tiny amounts, mercury can be highly toxic, causing human birth defects and permanent neurological damage, including retardation. It was a wake up call for me. The idea of poisonous fish being caught in one of the most beautiful and seemingly cleanest places in the world drove me to action.

I soon learned that rising levels of mercury in Maine's air and waters were a direct result of increased airborne mercury. Much of this pollution comes from the smoke stacks of coal-burning power plants in the American Midwest. In addition, as much as one-third of the mercury air pollution entering the U.S. comes through the atmosphere from Asia, where mercury is still used in small-scale mining. The prevailing winds bring this pollution to Maine; when rain falls into our lakes, rivers and oceans, it is laden with mercury and other toxins.

As mercury moves up the food chain from plants to fish to humans, it becomes more concentrated and toxic. Consumption of the potent neurotoxin is hazardous to human health, especially for infants, young children, and women who are pregnant or nursing.

Pollution in Maine is not the only problem. Much of the fish Americans eat, including tuna, comes from waters off the coast of Asia and from South America. Only federal law can control pollution resulting from mercury exported from the U.S. to be used elsewhere in the world. Mainers deserve to know that they can safely eat fish, whether imported from abroad or caught instate, without fear of toxic mercury contamination. My legislation takes a major step in that direction by banning U.S. export and therefore limiting mercury's use and release into the environment in other parts of the world.

The enacted bill will prohibit the commercial export of mercury by the United States (one of the world's top exporters of this metal) beginning in 2013, prohibit the commercial sale or transfer of federal mercury stockpiles, and provide for permanent storage of collected mercury by the Department of Energy. However, with one-sixth of American children born each year with more mercury in their blood than the Environmental Protection Agency considers safe for proper neurological development, we have to battle every aspect of this problem.

In the years since I first learned of growing mercury pollution in Maine, I have led the fight in Congress to reduce and clean up this national blight. In addition to the Mercury Export Ban Act, I introduced legislation that would close the loophole in the Clean Air Act that allows older power plants to ignore that law's air quality standards; require a phased elimination of mercury from consumer products, including thermometers, fluorescent tubes, batteries, and certain pharmaceutical and agricultural products; and create an international network to measure and track changes in mercury pollution and its effects across all ecosystem types in the United States.

Since I began my crusade, the American people have become more aware of the risks of mercury, and our states and local communities have improved requirements and systems for using and disposing of mercury-containing products. My Mercury Export Ban is another important step in the right direction. I will continue to work for the enactment of laws and practices that will decrease the amount of mercury in our water, our air, and our lives.


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