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Mercury (Cleanup) in Retrograde

Student members of the New York Public Interest Research Group statewide gathered at the University at Albany on Sunday to rally for the immediate reduction of dangerous levels of mercury throughout New York state’s waterways, including Albany’s only remaining above-ground creek, Patroon Creek.

Those gathered do not accept the current “inadequate, unacceptable, and appalling laws on mercury” that continue to plague the state’s bodies of water, announced Clean the Air Director Angela Ledford. They criticized the Environmental Protection Agency for paring back a 2001 goal to reduce mercury emissions from power plants by 90 percent by 2008. A new EPA proposal, which will be ruled on this year, lowers that goal to only a 70-percent emissions reduction—and not until 2018.

Dr. Ward Stone, state wildlife pathologist, explained how coal-burning plants and other industrial sources release mercury, which is washed into our lakes and creeks. Mercury is a potent neurotoxin, and eating fish from mercury-contaminated waters has been linked with poor vision, motor functions and memory, several NYPIRG speakers stressed. Mercury is especially toxic to fetuses.

One by one, students from all over New York, from Long Island to Buffalo, shared what amounted to hundreds of letters demanding immediate action from the EPA. A middle-aged man named Bill Cooke, a self-proclaimed Republican, took the floor while holding his little boy tightly to his chest. “This is not about me,” he said firmly. “This is about this little boy. This is about my family. This is about the Environmental Protection Agency, not the Everything is Pollutable Agency.”

Other speakers demanded that existing mercury pollution be cleaned up. Patroon Creek runs across Arbor Hill, Guilderland and Colonie and is one of the waterways targeted by NYPIRG for a necessary cleanup. Approximately 100,000 people live within a three-mile radius of a former mercury refining site near the creek, which is used for recreation and as a drinking-water supply, according to a fact sheet from the EPA’s Web site.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation put the EPA in charge of cleaning these waterways in 1999. According to its Web site, in 2002, the EPA found that “although groundwater is contaminated . . . it is unlikely that people would be directly exposed to groundwater contaminants,” and moved on to other projects. As a result, New York waters still contain a dangerous level of mercury. The EPA suggests that pregnant women not eat fish from contaminated areas, and that others should limit their intake of fish from contaminated waters to one a month.

NYPIRG’s position is that the EPA needs to take immediate action to clean New York’s waterways as well as protect them from further pollution by implementing higher standards for big industry. Jason Babbie, environmental policy analyst for NYPIRG, listed several long-range solutions ranging from the implementation of new hydrogen fuel to better corporate accountability. Acknowledging the additional economic cost involved in reducing the harmful mercury levels, he said simply, “We are going to pay. Should we pay after it becomes a deadly problem or before?”

—Ariel Colletti

Information and Justice for All

Tuesday (March 16) is Freedom of Information Day, a celebration of the principles of access to government and use of the Freedom of Information Act. The day is marked on James Madison’s birthday because as principle architect of the Constitution he was an outspoken proponent of open government. He would have been 253 this year.

The American Library Association will present its 15th James Madison Award this year to some lucky freedom-of- information fighter at an annual conference held by the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center. According to ALA’s Patrice McDermott, the conference will focus on the timely issues of “the impact of secrecy on scholarship and government accountability.”

—Ashley Hahn

Making Ends Meet

The New York State Assembly has passed a bill to increase New York’s minimum wage rate to $7.10 by 2006, the latest of its many attempts to do so over the past few years.

Currently the minimum wage is $5.15, which adds up to $10,712 a year for full-time work, $4,000 under the federal poverty level. The state last raised minimum wage in 1997, after the feds did. Many state Republicans, including Gov. Pataki and Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, think states with higher minimum wages than the federal level could prove less attractive for doing business, and the New York Farm Bureau and the Business Council of New York State agree.

In late January a Web-based petition to support a minimum wage raise was launched at www.515isnotenough.org. It had 4,425 signatures as of Wednesday morning.

The Capital District Labor Federation and the Catholic Conference support the bill, as does the Working Families Party. WFP lead organizer Keri Kresler said the party had been visiting senators to discuss the bill and that they “might have enough votes [in the Senate] if it ever comes to the floor, but then the question is, Will it come to the floor?” Sen. David Paterson (D-Harlem) plans to bring it there on April 1.

—Ashley Hahn


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