On August 20, while scanning the New York Times the old-fashioned way, i.e. on paper, I stopped to look at a small article, no bigger than a long paragraph, tucked away in a column full of short items called “National Briefing.” The headline read: “Mercury Found in Every Fish Tested, Scientists Say”.

I stopped to read, and found that “When government scientists went looking for mercury contamination in fish in 291 streams around the nation, they found it in every fish they tested . . . even in isolated rural waterways.”

Alarming enough. Then it continued: “In a statement, the department said that some of the streams tested were affected by mining operations, which can be a source of mercury pollution, so the findings, by scientists at the United States Geological Survey, do not necessarily reflect contamination levels nationwide.”

That struck me as a strange qualifier, since although some of the streams might have been clearly impacted by mining operations, the rest, by definition, had not—yet all had poisoned fish. And not just mildly poisoned: “A quarter of the fish studied had mercury levels above safety levels set by the Environmental Protection Agency for people who eat the fish regularly..”

I then noted the cause: “Emissions from coal-fired power plants are the largest source of mercury contamination in the United States.”

This struck me as something worth more than 137 words, so I went to see how much other attention this development got. A story from the Reuters news agency, at 475 words, added this information: “Conducted from 1998 through 2005, the USGS study is the first comprehensive survey of mercury contamination in the water, sediments and fish of rivers and creeks throughout the United States.” So now we had a sense of how significant this study was: plenty.

Reuters provided more context: “More than two-thirds exceeded the EPA-set level of concern for fish-eating mammals.”

Reuters also added this important component, not found in the Times brief—the action item: “The EPA said this year that it intends to issue new rules under the Clean Air Act to control air emissions of mercury from coal-fired power plants.”

Obviously, we urgently need to know more, like what kind of rules, how aggressively we can expect the coal-based power industry to resist this, and the likelihood that the Obama White House will end up approving tough measures. Also, it would be interesting to know whether the coal industry’s powerful allies on Capitol Hill can and will make any effort to stop implementation of measures to control emissions.

One big problem is that there’s so little coverage. I looked to see who else bothered to even note the EPA’s study. There was something on . And a bunch of blogs reposted either the New York Times or Reuters piece. Some media in other countries, Canada, England and Malta, for example, thought it noteworthy. But almost nothing else around the United States. And that is a travesty.


  • Russ Baker

    Russ Baker is Editor-in-Chief of WhoWhatWhy. He is an award-winning investigative journalist who specializes in exploring power dynamics behind major events.

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