BOSTICK- The Great and Little Pee Dee rivers coil like water snakes through lowland swamps here, where fishermen still pull 50-pound catfish from the rivers’ pools.

Perry White shows off a photo of himself holding one of those monster catfish he reeled in late last year. He’s eaten fish from these rivers for almost all of his 47 years.

Not any more.

He recently discovered through a test of his hair that his body contains 6.5 parts per million of mercury, a poison linked to brain damage, heart disease and other health problems.

White hasn’t noticed any symptoms, but he can’t help but wonder if mercury is harming him, while hoping that this toxin will leave his body if he stays away from the fish he loves.

Eating fish contaminated with mercury is the main source of mercury poisoning in people, and coal-fired power plants rank as one of the main sources of mercury pollution.

Twelve South Carolina power plants send more than 1,469 pounds of the toxic metal into the state’s air each year. Mercury fallout from coal burning and natural sources has poisoned fish in 1,747 miles of the state’s rivers, including the Great Pee Dee.

Here at Bostick, a rural crossroads on a Florence County bluff above this river, Santee Cooper wants to build another coal-fired power plant, a $1 billion generating station to keep the lights burning along the booming Grand Strand.

Bostick sits in a triangle formed by the three most mercury-contaminated river sections in thestate, ground zero in the battle over the future of coal-burning power plants in South Carolina.

This battle pits two opponents armed with their own studies and data.

On one side is Santee Cooper, the state-owned power company that sees coal as the quickest and most reliable way to produce low-cost electricity. The company says its new plant would release only small amounts of mercury. Santee Cooper contends that if it doesn’t get state and federal approval soon to start building the new plant, it might not have enough electricity to keep the lights on by 2012.

On the other side are environmentalists, including the Coastal Conservation League and the Southern Environmental Law Center. They see coal-fired power plants as Victorian Age technology that adds mercury to waterways already full of contaminated fish. They want the company to launch greater energy conservation efforts; use more alternative fuels; and build power plants with less polluting fossil fuels, such as natural gas. They accuse the company of putting cheap energy ahead of public health.

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