A sudden spike in dangerous mercury pollutants at Colorado Springs power plants has surprised health officials who aren't sure whether the risk for birth defects and neurological disorders has also jumped.
Two power plants run by Colorado Springs Utilities were the culprits, pushing mercury emissions in El Paso County up 25 percent in 2003, according to recently released data from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Kirk Mills, a data expert for the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, said without further study he is unsure what the health implications of the mercury increase are for those who live and work near the plants.
"It can be quite daunting to determine what the health impact could be," he said.
Combined, the Martin Drake Power Plant in southwest downtown and the Ray D. Nixon Power Plant about 17 miles south of the city created 218 pounds of mercury emissions in El Paso County in 2003, up by 44 pounds from the year before, according to the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory, an annual list that helps the public track pollution. The bulk of pollutants were from the Nixon plant.
Steve Berry, a spokesman for the utility, said the power plants have been burning more coal to meet the demands of the rising population.
"You burn coal to power the city," he said, "you're going to have chemicals released."
He added that most of the mercury is contained in ash and sent to a landfill. However, some spews into the air.
The Nixon power plant is regularly on Colorado's list of the 10 worst polluters. In 2003, it was ranked fifth.
The state's biggest polluter was the Cripple Creek & Victor Gold Mining Co. in Teller County. Roughly 3.18 million pounds of releases were recorded at the mine in 2003, up 8 percent from the preceding year.
Overall, Colorado saw a 14 percent reduction in toxic chemicals in 2003.
But Mills said changes to EPA tracking methods have make it difficult to compare results year to year. For example, between 2001 and 2002 roughly 12 million pounds of pollutants were not counted because of a relaxation in reporting requirements for mining companies, he said.
-- Michael de Yoanna