New Hampshire Wildlife News
by Certified Wildlife Biologist, Eric P. Orff

New Hampshire Nature Notes
by Eric Orff

Downwind and dirty; living in the shadow of a coal fired power plant stack.

Friday 02/27/2009

I have lived in the shadow of the Bow NH Merrimack Station coal fired power plant smokestack for 35 years. I first lived as a resident of Allenstown where I moved in 1974, then in 1979 to the house I now live in overlooking the Suncook River in Epsom. The top of the smokestack at the power plant is visible not far from my house if I look across a nearby snow covered corn field. At a glance I can gauge the likely power output by the plume of smoke shooting my way from the snout of this ancient dragon. Yes the Merrimack Station is over 40 years old as is the technology on which it was built. Technology from the middle of the last century when clean water was of little concern let alone clean air.

New Hampshire now stands at a crossroad on how our future energy needs should be met. There are plans to develop a huge wind energy plant in the northern region of the state. At the same time PSNH is moving forward with plans to spend, some say upwards of over a billion dollars, to keep the Merrimack Station in operation another 20 years or more, all the while it will continue to spew tons of pollution into our air each day. We have faced similar challenges before when our rivers were no more than open sewers.

I grew up in the 60’s in Londonderry just south of Manchester and I bore witness first hand how little concern there was of water pollution. I would fish the local Watts Brook for native and stocked brook trout but was always amazed at the filth of the Merrimack River where the brook’s clear waters emptied into its chocolate colored bowels. Yes indeed the Merrimack was nothing more than an open sewer with confetti colored toilet paper flowing by with all the human waste churning in the rivers current. It took the federal government to pass the Clean Water Act in the early 1970’s to clean up the Merrimack River as well as the Suncook River I now live on. Folks here in town talk about the old days when the Suncook River ran different colors depending on what color dyes were in use at the tannery in Pittsfield. Decisions were made 40 years ago to commit the federal, state and local governments to clean up our rivers.

While we have made great strides in cleaning up our rivers and stream we seem to be treating the very air we breath like the rivers of past. Did you know that the Merrimack Station is the single largest point of global warming gasses in NH spewing out 3.7 MILLION TONS of CO2, about 20 percent of the state’s total, and 120 pounds of mercury PER YEAR.

Over my 30 plus years as a wildlife biologist in New Hampshire I have come to know just how these numbers are impacting our fish and wildlife.

For instance I happened to have a friend working at the Department of Environmental Services (DES). He was to begin an assessment of pollution in fish in northern NH but wanted to practice the testing procedure first and asked me, as a fishermen, if I could get him a couple fish to practice on. He needed predatory fish like pickerel or bass which are at the top of the food chain. So I gave him a foot to 14 inch long pickerel from Little Durgan Pond in Northwood and a similar sized largemouth bass from Beaver Pond in Bear Brook State Park. He called me a few weeks later in a rather excited voice “Wow those fish were off the charts! He exclaimed. “These fish have the most mercury in them of any other fish ever tested in North America. Just one meal of one of these fish by a pregnant woman could potentially affect her fetus.” He went on to say.

And it is just not fish that I have been involved with testing. In another example as a biologist for the Fish and Game Department I was involved with submitting pieces of moose livers for testing. Here too the pollution from our power plant’s have caused acid rain that has stripped heavy metals from the soil causing moose to take up high levels of cadmium in their livers. Too high for human consumption these days it seems, same goes for deer livers too.

In a very recent discovery it appears that acid rain is stripping aluminum from the soil as well sending it into the tributaries of the Merrimack River where we have a decades-long effort to restore Atlantic salmon. Studies suggest that aluminum is coating the gills of the juvenile salmon. This seems to be no problem in their two year stay in fresh water. But as soon as they molt and migrate out to sea they suffocate in salt water because of the aluminum. Each year one and a half million salmon fry are stocked into the Merrimack River system as part of a four decades restoration effort. While the blame in the past has been placed on the unknown events at sea, the problem now seems to be right here in our own back yards. The plume of effluents from our power plants cast a huge shadow over much of the fish and wildlife that we are just now learning about.

I also collected mink carcasses from NH trappers and sent them off to the US Fish and Wildlife Services a few years ago as part of a study to look at mercury in both mink and otter. Here again mercury levels in the mink I collected were very high. According to my friend at DES “The levels of mercury in the mink you submitted would be harmful to a human.”

In a recent proposal released by the Public Service Company of NH (PSNH) they are planning to spend a half billion dollars in adding a scrubber to the Merrimack Station to reduce mercury levels by 80 percent. Just two years ago this same scrubber was to cost only $250,000,000. In another outside estimate the cost of this scrubber will more likely be 1.2 billion dollars ($1,200,000,000). Just this February the EPA has announced that they will issue at least a 10 percent tighter mercury control requirement for coal plants that will be effective in 2010. The current proposed scrubber does NOT meet the new proposal. Besides how much mercury is “safe”.

NH senator Harold Janeway has introduced a bill to require the state’s Public Utilities Commission to determine just what the costs will be to keep the Merrimack Station operating for another 20 years and whether there are better alternatives to spending potentially billions of dollars on a plant that in the best of condition will continue to spew vast quantities of pollution into New Hampshire’s air, the air you and your grandchildren must breath. Take a minute and call your senator. Tell them you want to know the whole story on what is at stake. Only a complete analysis by the PUC will give us the answers we need. (For more information on the impacts of global warming gasses and wildlife go to Eric Orff’s web site at

Eric Orff
February 27, 2009

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