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CURE worried mercury levels in fish near Monte, Granite Falls are from Big Stone power plant

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MONTEVIDEO -- A local environmental organization is charging that mercury levels in fish sampled in the Granite Falls and Montevideo area are higher than in fish tested elsewhere in the Minnesota River.

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Clean Up our River Environment is urging that research be conducted to determine if emissions from the Big Stone power plant are responsible, said Patrick Moore, executive director of the citizens' group.

Dan Sharp, communications manger with Otter Tail Power, said "it is not good information'' being distributed by CURE about mercury and the Big Stone power plant. Otter Tail operates the Big Stone plant and is one of the partners in the proposed Big Stone II plant.

Moore acknowledged that it is only speculation to link the mercury levels in fish in the Montevideo and Granite Falls area with emissions from the existing Big Stone plant. He said there has been no specific study looking at whether mercury levels vary in the river, and if so, whether local environmental or human factors influence them. The fish samples being cited by CURE may simply represent an anomaly, he said.

CURE has been vocal in its opposition to the proposed 500-megawatt, coal-fired Big Stone II electric generation plant that would be built near the existing Big Stone power plant.

The existing plant emits 189 pounds of mercury each year.

The Big Stone II project is committed to adding new technology to reduce mercury emissions. That is in keeping with Minnesota's goal of a 90 percent reduction in mercury emissions by 2014.

As a result, the total mercury emissions from the plants will be reduced to 80 to 90 pounds per year, Sharp said. That means a Big Stone II facility will be producing twice the power with one-half the mercury emissions.

CURE analyzed Minnesota Department of Health data from 2004, the most recent year available. According to Moore, it showed that mercury levels in sampled fish rise significantly in the Granite Falls and Montevideo area when compared to the rest of the river.

The data is limited: Only seven fish were sampled from the area, but the six catfish and one walleye in the sampling had relatively high levels. One 22.8-inch-long channel catfish had mercury levels of 0.787 parts per million, while a 28-inch-long walleye had 0.963 parts per million. The five other catfish had levels ranging from 0.243 parts per million to 0.692 parts per million.

Elsewhere in the river, mercury levels varied but tended to be lower, according to Moore.

Moore said there have been studies in both Canada and Ohio that show mercury tends to accumulate in lake sediments 21 miles downwind of coal-fired power plants.

Sharp said he is not aware of those studies and cannot comment on them.

He noted that most studies indicate that mercury is broadly distributed by the winds.

Because most mercury deposition is airborne, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency estimates that 90 percent of the mercury in Minnesota comes from sources outside of the state.

The sources are many, according to the MPCA. Burning coal to produce electricity and manufacturing processes are major sources of mercury emissions. Mercury also reaches the environment from its use in products such as fluorescent lights and other electrical equipment.

To draw awareness to the issue, Moore said two CURE volunteers braved the cold winds on New Year's Day to distribute information to ice fishermen on Lac qui Parle Lake about mercury contamination in the fish. They also visited with anglers at bait shops and a resort.

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