|China's Mercury Flushes into Oregon's Rivers |
By Richard Reed
November 24, 2006
Contaminant - A fifth of the poisonous metal found in the Willamette is from
outside North America
The inky smoke belched by chimneys in Chinese cities such as Linfen and Datong
contains mercury, a metal linked to fetal and child development problems. Trace
amounts of the poison can take less than a week to reach Oregon, where research
suggests that about one-fifth of the mercury entering the Willamette River comes
from abroad -- increasingly from China.
Mercury and other airborne contaminants collect over China during the winter and
spring until Siberian winds arrive bearing dust from expanding Chinese and
Mongolian deserts. Every five or six days, the winds flush out eastern China,
sending dust and pollutants such as ozone precursors high over the Pacific, says
Russ Schnell, observatory and global network operations director for the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"The ozone on the West Coast in a few years will be controlled not by California
and Oregon," Schnell says. "It will be controlled by China." The incoming
pollution bucks a U.S. trend toward cleaner skies and water.
Mercury is especially suited for long-distance travel because at the smokestack
in elemental form, it's insoluble. By the time it reaches the West Coast,
however, some of the mercury has transformed into a reactive gaseous material
that dissolves in Western Oregon's wet climate. It washes into the river, where
microbes convert it into a form that further concentrates in fish.
Most of the mercury entering the Willamette comes from Oregon's volcanic soil
and from sediment churned up on the river bottom. But Bruce Hope, senior
environmental toxicologist of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality,
estimates that global sources beyond the state's control contribute 18 percent
-- more than four times the share from local air deposition.
"If I made every local source go away, would I be able to eat the fish?" Hope
asks. "Right now the answer is maybe."
Hope was struggling to account for all the Willamette's mercury sources before
he encountered Dan Jaffe, an atmospheric and environmental chemistry professor
at the University of Washington at Bothell. Jaffe and other scientists were
detecting Asian pollutants in monitors atop Mount Bachelor and Cheeka Peak, on
the Olympic Peninsula.
Urban carcinogen levels
The monitors regularly record levels of airborne carcinogens equivalent to those
of a major city, says Staci Simonich, an Oregon State University researcher. In
April 2004, instruments mounted atop Mount Bachelor's Summit Express ski lift
intercepted an enormous Asian plume laced with mercury and ozone. The
fine-particle concentration hit about 20 micrograms per cubic meter, compared
with the federal air-quality standard of an average 65 micrograms during a
"The air we saw on that day was comparable to a moderately bad day in Portland,"
says Jaffe. "When you consider that that air has traveled thousands and
thousands of miles, it's pretty amazing really." Jaffe calculated that Asia
emits 1,460 metric tons of mercury a year, twice as much as previously thought.
To be sure, concentrations of foreign pollutants in Oregon are minimal compared
with federal air-quality standards. On an average spring day in the Northwest,
the overall sulfate concentration reaches just 0.72 micrograms per cubic meter,
says Colette Heald, a University of California at Berkeley researcher. About
one-quarter of the average sulfate level comes from Asia, Heald says.
But the DEQ's Hope realized that when fallout occurs across an area as large as
the Willamette's 11,500-square-mile watershed, low concentrations add up. He
identified the river's mercury sources for a study published in the
international journal Science of the Total Environment.
Especially if China's share increases, Hope says, Oregon can do little to reduce
contamination of the river even by cracking down on emissions, eliminating
mercury from products and segregating waste. "Because of foreign sources, the
kinds of management changes that would be acceptable would probably not be
enough to let us eat the fish."
Oregon officials have warned since issuing a 2001 advisory that Willamette bass
and pikeminnow bear unsafe mercury levels.
Mercury acts on the central nervous system and can reduce mental ability, making
kids shy, irritable, and slow to learn, and causing tremors and visual
disturbances. Children under 7 should not eat more than a single 4-ounce portion
of nonmigrating fish every seven weeks, while women of childbearing age should
eat no more than one 8-ounce portion a month.
The DEQ has a mercury cleanup plan for the Willamette that will take decades.
But "you throw in the global contribution," says Dave Stone, Oregon public
health toxicologist, "and it does become that much more complex." Oregon, which
has 14 fish advisories for mercury, has not been able to lift one.
Impact on cleanup
The added mercury from abroad, coupled with Oregon's high natural levels, could
concentrate pressure on local emitters under the DEQ's cleanup plan.
Weyerhaeuser, for example, has more than 15 plants in the watershed. "We're
concerned to the extent that we have to do something that won't matter," says
Marv Lewallen, Weyerhaeuser Oregon environmental affairs manager.
It's not just the Willamette that will be difficult to clean up because of
mercury beyond local control. Scientists expected to find patterns of mercury
pollution from nearby factories when they took sediment samples beneath lakes
near Bellingham, Wash., that contain fish unsafe to eat. Instead, most of the
industrial mercury came from global sources.
"Our best estimates indicate that there's more mercury deposited in this country
from outside our borders than from inside our borders," says Richard Scheffe,
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency senior science adviser.
Mercury is just one of the foreign pollutants that scientists are tracking. At
least one-third of California's fine particulate pollution -- known as aerosol
-- has floated across from Asia, says Steve Cliff, an atmospheric scientist at
the University of California at Davis.
"In May this year, almost all the fine aerosol present at Lake Tahoe came from
China," says Tom Cahill, a UC Davis emeritus professor of atmospheric sciences.
"So the haze that you see in spring at Crater Lake or other remote areas is in
fact Chinese in origin."
Cliff says China's growing contribution will complicate U.S. efforts to meet
annual average emissions standards. "As you try to reduce particulate pollution
from local and regional sources, you're only reducing to some background level,"
Cliff says. "The concern is that as China continues to expand, that background
level will only tend to increase."
A recent court decision raises the possibility that foreign firms could be held
liable for polluting the United States. A 9th U.S. Court of Appeals panel ruled
that Teck Cominco Ltd., a company that discharged heavy metals and slag in the
upper Columbia River in Canada, must pay to clean up a downriver stretch in the
Scientists are frustrated by a lack of data from Asia, where factories often
aren't required to report what they emit, says Richard "Tony" VanCuren, a UC
Davis applied-sciences researcher.
One thing is certain, though, because of geography and wind: "The maximum impact
from Asia," Heald says, "is going to be in the Northwestern United States."
China's Dirty Exports: Mercury and Soot
November 24, 2006
Dust plumes blow across the Pacific from cities and factories and dump
pollutants on the Northwest
The enormous dust clouds gather in the Gobi Desert. They sail on Siberian winds
to China. They pick up mercury, aerosols and carbon monoxide spewed by Chinese
coal plants and factories.
Then every five or six days in spring, eastern China flushes like a gigantic
toilet. The dust plumes, now as large as countries, ride high over the Pacific
Ocean, pushing hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides and ozone.
They reach Oregon in less than a week, sullying springtime views at Crater Lake
and scattering dust as far as Maine. Researchers climb an ice-encrusted ladder
atop Mount Bachelor's Summit Express ski-lift tower and collect the evidence.
Beyond the views, China's contaminants affect Oregon in two key ways:
A growing amount of the greenhouse gases that trap heat, shrink Northwest
glaciers and raise ocean levels comes from China.
A substantial share of the mercury that pollutes the Willamette River, making
fish unsafe to eat, has traveled thousands of miles across the Pacific.
"It's kind of frustrating because it's limiting our choices here," says Bruce
Hope, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality researcher who estimated
the share of global mercury reaching the Willamette. "As long as these foreign
sources are there -- and God forbid that they should get any bigger -- we'll be hard-pressed."
But China's emissions are getting bigger.
It plans to add at least 500 coal plants to more than 2,000 operating already. It spews more soot than any other
Yet it's all too easy to blame China for the mess. U.S. consumers, who buy
China's goods and use far more resources than the Chinese, share responsibility.
"Americans in our cleverness are not good Boy Scouts," says Greg Carmichael, a
University of Iowa atmospheric chemist, "because we've put the latrine upstream
of the campsites."
November 24, 2006
China is polluting the Willamette River? Why not do something distinctly
American and file a lawsuit?
Not likely, experts say. While the United States could technically have some
recourse, the legal hurdles would be high and the political obstacles higher.
"I just can't imagine the United States or any other country bringing a case
like this, given the increasing economic and political power of China," says
Chris Wold, a Lewis & Clark Law School professor of international environmental law.
If Washington did bring a case to the International Court of Justice, Beijing
would have to agree that the court had jurisdiction. The United States would
have to prove that Chinese pollution caused specific damage.
Instead, the United States is providing aid and training to help China cut
pollution, says Terry Keating, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scientist.
Keating, who co-chairs the multination Task Force on Hemispheric Transport of
Air Pollution, hopes for international agreements someday on transboundary
Some Oregon companies, such as Williams Controls Inc., which makes
truck-throttle controls, sell products that reduce emissions in China. In
China's biggest city, the Oregon-designed Shanghai Energy Resource Center
displays energy-efficient technologies.
"We've been able to show that you can have an economy that grows and a
population that grows," Keating says of the United States, "and still have air