The EPA has announced regulations which effectively eliminate hundreds of coal fired electricity generation plants in the US due to, among other things, mercury emissions:

After decades of political squabbling, on Wednesday the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued its Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, or MATS, which will dramatically cut the amount of highly toxic mercury and about 70 other pollutants released in the United States. The rules target the emissions from coal-fired power plants.
How much of a problem is this really?

The money shot: In fact, where I live, on the pure clean Pacific coast with lots of sea breeze, I get more mercury pollution than they get around Pennsylvania despite all the coal-burning power stations just upwind from them.

I’ve been puzzling for a while about why the areas with the most power plants aren’t the areas with the worst levels of mercury pollution. Why aren’t the areas downwind from the power plants heavily polluted? I keep running across curious statements like “There was no obvious relationship between large-mouth bass or yellow perch fish tissue mercury concentrations and their locations relative to prevailing wind patterns and the incinerators” (source). In that regard I came across a critically important paper. The paper starts with what to me is a most surprising statement.
But before I get to that, a short digression. There’s a couple kinds of mercury emitted by power plants, by forest fires, and by your automobile, for that matter. Well, actually three kinds, but there’s very little particulate mercury coming from any of those sources. The two kinds are “divalent” and “elemental”.
Elemental mercury (written as “Hg0″) means what you’d think, atoms of mercury vapor. Because it doesn’t bind with much and it is insoluble, it has a fairly long atmospheric half-life, on the order of a year or so. Elemental mercury is what forms the background mercury levels that are present everywhere in the atmosphere.

Figure 1. Areas in the US where fish have high levels of mercury. White areas have not been tested. EPA threshold as safe to eat is 0.30 ppm (two lightest shades of red). From the EPA’s Mercury Maps (PDF)
The other kind of mercury, divalent mercury (written as HgII), exists in the form of compounds like mercuric chloride (HgCL2). Because these compounds are both water-soluble and chemically reactive, they come out of the atmosphere quickly through deposition by precipitation. In addition, they come out slowly as elemental mercury is slowly changed into divalent mercury in the atmosphere. And as a result of all of these kinds of atmospheric mercury, plus mercury naturally in the soils, we end up with mercury in the fish.
To summarize: elemental mercury is added to the background mercury and doesn’t settle out near the power plant. Divalent mercury is reactive and water-soluble, so it rains and precipitates out near the power plant. And the problem is that analysis of the emissions from the smokestack of coal-fired power plants show on the order of 25% more divalent mercury than elemental mercury. Which sounds like bad news for those living downwind from our power plants.
With that as prologue, here’s the opening statement that I found so surprising, from a paper called “Modeling Mercury in Power Plant Plumes”.
First, the Mercury Deposition Network (MDN) data (1) along a west-to-east transect from Minnesota to Pennsylvania show no significant spatial gradient in annual mercury (Hg) concentrations in atmospheric precipitation although the Ohio Valley includes several large Hg emission sources located, under prevailing wind conditions, upwind of Pennsylvania.
Say what? No hot spots for mercury downwind of several large power plant mercury emission sources? How come I haven’t heard of that?
So I wandered off to the Mercury Deposition Network, where I found a couple more surprising maps.
Figure 2. Total Mercury concentration in the atmosphere in 2010. Units are nanograms per litre. The red “hot spot” in the center of the US reflects the natural mercury coming from deserts and croplands, as I discussed in “The EPA’s Mercurial MadnessSOURCE
As an aside, the EPA and other scientists claim that much of the mercury in the atmosphere is “recycled” anthropogenic mercury. They say the natural emissions are in large part just man-made emissions being re-emitted. I certainly would hope that Figure 2 would put a stop to those claims. The main and overwhelming source of atmospheric mercury in the US is the natural mercury in the soils.
OK, another surprise for me. We’ve seen where the sources are and what’s in the air. Now, let’s see what gets deposited in the rain and snow. Figure 3 shows the wet deposition map for the US in 2010.

Figure 3. Mercury wet deposition rates for the US. Units are micrograms per square metre of surface. SOURCE
Note that strangely, this is kind of a weather map. Why is it a weather map? Well, for example I live on the coast not far north of San Franciso Bay. I was amazed to see that I live in an area of relatively high mercury deposition. Why?
The answer is, because when the moist air sweeps in off the Pacific and hits the coastal mountains, it rains. And when it rains, I get showered with natural mercury from the ocean. Further inland on the east side of California, you can see the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains painted in red. They get the moisture that doesn’t fall on the coastal ranges. And since they are much higher, they pretty much wring the moisture (and the mercury) out of the air, leaving Nevada with little mercury deposition.
The main flow of air in the US is from west to east. As a result, the hot spot over the southwestern US precipitates out in the central US. It is aided by moist air flowing in from the Gulf of Mexico during some months. This can be seen all along the Gulf Coast. Florida, like where I live, is another victim of oceanic mercury poisoning.
Finally, to return to the surprising statement I started with, in Figure 3 the blue arrow shows the prevailing winds blowing over the power plants in the Ohio River Valley towards Pennsylvania. If it is the case that the majority of the mercury emissions are divalent mercury, then why is there no trace of them raining out along the way as we’d expect?
The authors look at several different possibilities. Their final conclusion? (emphasis mine)
A sensitivity study of the impact of the Hg dry deposition velocity shows that a difference in dry deposition alone cannot explain the disparity. Similarly, a sensitivity study of the impact of cloud chemistry on results shows that the effect of clouds on Hg chemistry has only minimal impact. Possible explanations include HgII reduction to Hg0 in the plume, rapid reduction of HgII to Hg0 on ground surfaces, and/or an overestimation of the HgII fraction in the power plant emissions.
We propose that a chemical reaction not included in current models of atmospheric mercury reduces HgII to Hg0 in coal-fired power plant plumes.
This has large implications for the regulation of power plants. All the big power plants in the Ohio River Valley aren’t increasing the mercury deposition towards Pennsylvania. The mercury is being converted into elemental mercury along the way somewhere, so it’s added to the background mercury rather than raining out near the power plants.
In fact, where I live, on the pure clean Pacific coast with lots of sea breeze, I get more mercury pollution than they get around Pennsylvania despite all the coal-burning power stations just upwind from them.

And that, dear friends, was a very big surprise … when’s the EPA gonna step in to save me?
Does this mean mercury is not a poison? By no means, mercury is a bad thing, and it’s everywhere … it just shows the story has lots of tricks and turns.
Always more to learn,