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How much mercury is Santee Cooper releasing? Is anyone sure?

DHEC and Santee Cooper have given sharply conflicting numbers for the amount of deadly mercury the utility’s four coal-fired plants emit.

When asked under the state’s Freedom of Information Act, DHEC originally gave The State newspaper what’s called a Detailed Emissions Inventory Report for each Santee Cooper plant.

In 2006, the mercury emissions for the four plants totaled 1,004 pounds.

Asked about the same mercury emissions, Santee Cooper gave The State the same reports. Their numbers were also 1,004.

However, in September, The State examined a recent Santee Cooper public relations booklet, Journey, in which the utility said its total mercury output was about 400 pounds in 2006.

The State then asked each agency to review its mercury figures. Santee Cooper stood by its 400-pound figure, even though its official emissions report to DHEC for 2006 totals 1,004 pounds.

Later, on Oct. 3, DHEC notified The State it had lowered mercury numbers for the two of the four plants that are the oldest — and most in need of modernized pollution control.

DHEC now says Santee Cooper’s Jefferies plant emitted 68, not 342, pounds of mercury in 2006. DHEC now says Grainger emitted 35, not 106, pounds.

DHEC’s explanation: It should have used a modified formula to calculate those plants’ emissions.

DHEC’s new number — 659 pounds of mercury for Santee Cooper’s four plants in 2006 — still is much higher than Santee Cooper’s 400-pound claim.

Mercury emission numbers are close estimates. They are calculated using complex formulas that take into account things like tons of coal burned and its mercury content.

— John Monk