Alabama Power plant among worst for mercury

Published 4:41 pm Friday, December 5, 2008

An Alabama Power plant in Wilsonville ranks as one of the nation’s worst sources of mercury pollution, according to a recent report.

The Ernest C. Gaston Plant released almost 1,200 pounds of mercury into the air last year, ranking it eighth for U.S. power plants. The data comes from a study by the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit group.

Gaston runs on coal, which releases small amounts of mercury when it is burned. Once in the atmosphere, mercury settles in the soil and waterways and eventually works up the food chain into humans.

Alabama Power spokesman Michael Sznajderman said his company is taking steps to reduce mercury emissions.

The company is building a $300 million scrubber for its largest unit, which produces about half of the plant’s power. The technology will cut down on sulfur dioxide, mercury and other pollutants.

The plant has five power-generating units, with a combined output of 1,800 megawatts.

The scrubber is being installed in Unit 5, which runs at about 880 megawatts. The other four units are smaller and produce about 250 megawatts apiece.

“When you add a scrubber, you get a very significant mercury reduction,” said Sznajderman. “We are looking in the future … at a 60 to 80 percent reduction.”

The scrubber should be up and running by the spring of 2010.

Sznajderman also said the EIP report doesn’t take into account a power plant’s size. He said other companies may be generating just as much mercury, but with more smaller plants.

“We tend to show up higher in these reports, but we build larger plants,” said Sznajderman. “If you have a large plant, you are going to have some mercury.”

When comparing mercury emissions to the amount of power generated, Gaston does fall out of the Top 10, to No. 11.

Consumer demand is also up, Sznajderman said. The Gaston Plant produced 6.4 percent more power in 2007 than 2006. That helps explain why Gaston emitted 4.85 percent more mercury over the two-year period.

Coal-fired power plants are the single largest producers of mercury pollution in the U.S.

Gaston and similar plants account for about 40 percent of the nation’s mercury emission, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

An Alabama Power plant in Jefferson County ranked No. 1 on the list. The Miller Plant released nearly a ton of mercury into the air last year. Five out of the Top 10 worst polluters were in Texas.