Evidence is mounting that mercury pollution from coal-burning power plants presents a serious threat to North Carolina’s public health, but you wouldn’t have guessed it from the latest meeting of the N.C. Environmental Management Commission subcommittee charged with drafting the state’s mercury emissions rule.

The EMC’s Air Quality Committee met Feb. 9 in Raleigh to finalize the proposal, which the EMC will vote on next month. If the EMC approves the rule, a public comment period begins. Environmental groups oppose the plan because it establishes a mercury cap-and-trade scheme rather than requiring across-the-board reductions. The N.C. Division of Air Quality and state Attorney General Roy Cooper have also criticized the trading approach.

The meeting took place the day after researchers at the University of North Carolina-Asheville released interim results of the nation’s largest mercury hair sampling project, organized by Greenpeace and the Sierra Club. It found mercury levels exceeding the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended limit in one in five women of childbearing age.

Mercury is a neurotoxin that accumulates in people’s bodies primarily through eating contaminated fish. In North Carolina, all waters east and south of Interstate 85 are under fish-consumption advisories due to mercury pollution, most of which comes from the state’s 14 coal-fired power plants owned by Progress Energy and Duke Energy.

Progress Energy’s Cape Fear plant in Chatham County, for example, dumped 71 pounds of mercury into the air in 2003, according to EPA Toxic Release Inventory data. To put that in perspective, consider that there’s enough mercury in an ordinary fever thermometer to contaminate a 20-acre lake. And though the EPA once thought most airborne mercury was deposited far from its source, recent research has found that about 70 percent of mercury releases are deposited locally.

Mercury exposure has been linked to neurological problems, cardiovascular disease and infertility in adults, and lowered intelligence in children–including those exposed before birth through their mothers. A study published last year in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives estimates that between 317,000 and 637,000 U.S. children are born each year with mercury levels associated with IQ loss.

Yet the EMC committee’s discussion was nearly devoid of any sense of public-health urgency. The UNC-Asheville study did not come up, but the rule’s impact on utilities did. Indeed, committee member Steve Weber–an attorney with the Charlotte office of Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein, which counts public utilities among its clients–has argued that strict mercury regulations could cost companies millions of dollars.

“There has to be a balance somewhere,” Weber recently told The Charlotte Observer.

In the end, only committee member John Curry, an Asheville environmental attorney in private practice, voted against the rule.

“Especially with regard to toxic materials, we should take into account the public health effects,” Curry says.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began studying the need for mercury emissions rules in the early 1990s. The agency under President Clinton reported to Congress that mercury pollution is a serious public health threat and that power plants are the largest emitters, releasing some 48 tons a year. The EPA began working with stakeholders to develop a rule that would have required a 90 percent reduction of mercury emissions from all regulated utilities by 2008.

But that rulemaking process ground to a halt under President Bush. Instead, the Bush administration last March proposed the Clean Air Mercury Rule. Rather than setting across-the-board mercury limits, the rule would give every source pollution credits that could be bought and sold. As a result, some sources could continue releasing high levels of mercury into the environment, allowing hotspots to remain.

The Clean Air Mercury Rule provides the foundation for North Carolina’s regulation. However, the federal rule has already drawn lawsuits from state attorneys general (though not North Carolina’s) as well as environmental organizations, Indian tribes and four national medical groups represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center.

“North Carolina is facing a choice between protecting higher profits for utilities and protecting children’s health,” says John Suttles, an attorney with the SELC’s Chapel Hill office. “The proposed rule doesn’t go far enough fast enough to protect children.”

Mercury pollution is an especially critical issue for North Carolina, as the black water ecosystems of the coastal plain provide ideal conditions for converting mercury to its especially dangerous methylmercury form, which readily builds up in the body. Indeed, some of the highest mercury hair and blood levels ever recorded in the United States were in the Lake Waccamaw area west of Wilmington.

Suttles encourages concerned citizens to weigh in during the comment process by speaking at public hearings or by writing letters. Citizens may also want to voice their concerns about mercury with state legislators, EMC members and the governor.

“We have a big problem, it’s homegrown and we need to do something at home to take care of it,” Suttles says.