America’s Biggest Mercury Polluters

How Cleaning Up the Dirtiest Power Plants Will Protect Public Health

Power plants continue to release large amounts of toxic pollutants, including mercury, into our air. Mercury pollution particularly threatens fetuses and infants, who can suffer irreversible brain damage due to mercury exposure. This report ranks U.S. power plants by 2010 mercury emissions, and makes the case for new toxic pollution standards the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will finalize in December to protect public health.


Travis Madsen

Policy Analyst

Power plants continue to release large amounts of toxic pollutants, including mercury, into our air. In 2010, two-thirds of all airborne mercury pollution in the United States came from the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants. In other words, power plants generate more airborne mercury pollution than all other industrial sources combined.

Mercury is a potent neurotoxicant. Mercury exposure during critical periods of brain development can contribute to irreversible deficits in verbal skills, damage to attention and motor control, and reduced IQ.

In 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) developed the first national standards limiting mercury and other toxic air pollution from existing coal- and oil-fired power plants. Implementing these standards will protect public health.

Coal-fired power plants are a major source of airborne mercury pollution.

  • The Big Brown Steam Electric Station and Lignite Coal Mine in Fairfield, Texas, emitted 1,610 pounds of mercury pollution into our air in 2010, the most of any industrial facility in the nation.
  • This amount is significant because mercury is so potent. Distributed over a wide area, just fractions of an ounce of mercury can contaminate local and regional water bodies, making resident fish unsafe to eat. All 50 states currently have advisories warning women and children not to eat local fish due to mercury contamination.
  • Of the top 10 biggest mercury-polluting power plants in the country, six are located in Texas, with one each in Alabama, Louisiana, Missouri and Ohio. Table ES-1 lists these top 10 biggest mercury polluters.
  • Among all states nationwide, Texas ranked first in terms of overall airborne mercury pollution produced by power plants in 2010. Ohio ranked second, followed by Pennsylvania in third. (See Table ES-2.)
  • Just five companies were responsible for more than one-third of all power plant mercury emissions in 2010, led by American Electric Power with 6,200 pounds. (See Table ES-3.)

Mercury pollution threatens public health.

  • Largely due to emissions from coal-fired power plants, mercury contamination in our environment is widespread. After leaving the smokestack, mercury falls to the ground in rain or snow, contaminates waterways, and accumulates in fish. Eating contaminated fish is the main source of human exposure to mercury.  
  • Mercury is a potent neurotoxicant. During critical windows of brain development that occur in utero and in the first year or two of a child’s life, mercury exposure can lead to irreversible deficits in attention and motor control, damage to verbal skills, and reduced IQ.
  • One in 10 women of childbearing age in the United States has enough mercury in her blood to put her child at risk of developmental damage should she become pregnant.

New EPA standards will limit mercury pollution from power plants and protect public health

  • Under the authority of the Clean Air Act, EPA has developed the first national standard limiting releases of mercury and other toxic air pollutants from existing coal- and oil-fired power plants. As proposed in March 2011, this standard will require power plant owners to cut overall emissions of mercury by more than 90 percent using widely available, proven pollution control technologies.
  • Similar standards affecting other industries have successfully reduced mercury contamination of fish in local waterways.
  • As proposed, the new emissions standard will improve public health. EPA estimates that for every dollar spent to reduce pollution from power plants, the American public and American businesses will see up to $13 in health and economic benefits. In total, the rules could provide as much as $140 billion worth of benefits annually.
  • EPA should finalize the rules as proposed. Congress should support this common-sense action.



Travis Madsen

Policy Analyst