When Katie Mercer-Taylor was a freshman in college, she caught a cold that wouldn’t go away. The flu, coupled with her lifelong asthma, landed Katie in the hospital with full-blown pneumonia.
Her mom, Beth Mercer-Taylor, flew down to Oberlin College in Ohio, where Katie was studying. By the time the two returned to Minnesota and saw a specialist, she couldn’t breathe, her lips were purple, and about 70 percent of her airways were blocked.
“The level of pneumonia she had at 19 years old could have killed her, and she’s going to be impacted by that for the rest of her life,” Beth says. “That for me meant 'boom,' I’m suddenly out of work. I had to go down and rescue her.”
Although it’s always difficult to pinpoint an exact causal link between human health and environmental pollutants, Beth traces the genesis of Katie’s lifelong asthma to her own pregnancy. Twenty years ago, she and her husband lived in Berkeley, Calif., in a corridor overlooking the train yards and Highway 580, one of the world’s most congested roads.
“We have a really personal, visceral understanding of this true cost of pollution because we’ve lived it,” Beth says. “It’s not just about lives lost, it’s about families impaired by air quality.” Katie, who has studied Mandarin Chinese for years and dreamed of living for a time in Beijing, will have to weigh the costs of giving up regular exercise while she’s there and wearing a breathing mask everywhere she goes.
On Wednesday, Beth and Katie will speak at a public hearing on the impact of air pollution and climate change, particularly in communities where coal plants such as Sherburne County’s Sherco station still stand. They’ll be joined by students, families, doctors and environmentalists, who will travel from all corners of Minnesota to testify in St. Paul.
An administrative law judge will listen and collect their presentations before making a recommendation to the Public Utilities Commission. The PUC will then make a ruling on how to limit the state's sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and carbon emissions.
His hope is that the commission will embark on a gradual fazing out of Sherco over the next decade, says Dr. Bruce Synder, a Mendota Heights neurologist who has studied the impact of mercury pollution on newborn babies. Mercury, a neurotoxin, has been found in higher than average concentrations in more than 8 percent of infants born in the Lake Superior basin, he says.
“Sherco in Sherburne County is one of the largest polluters in the country,” Synder says. “Health care professionals, doctors and nurses are very concerned about the number of health issues, the increasing risks of stroke, heart disease, lung disease, asthma, and the higher death rates in populations exposed to higher concentrations of these pollutants.”
The PUC hearing will be held Wednesday at 2 p.m. at 121 7th Place East in St. Paul.