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Minnesota reaches mercury reduction agreement

Minnesota's largest smokestack industries have agreed to an unprecedented plan to make cuts in mercury pollution over the next 18 years, right down to the pound and ounce.

The plan, years in the works, will be unveiled to the public Tuesday when it's presented to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency board in St. Paul.

It's the biggest step ever in Minnesota toward cutting the amount of toxic mercury going into the air and later falling to earth, where it contaminates fish and making them unsafe for some people to eat.

The plan lists exactly how much mercury coal-fired power plants, Iron Range taconite plants, oil refineries and other big polluters must cut from their emissions.

Even crematoriums have agreed to cut by 75 percent the amount of mercury that goes up their smokestacks when clients' dental fillings are cremated. Minnesota dentists also will move almost entirely away from mercury amalgam fillings, continuing the transition to polymer fillings.

And Minnesota is moving to produce virtually zero products that contain mercury by 2025 to keep the heavy metal out of the waste stream and prevent it from evaporating into the air -- cutting that share of mercury from 42 pounds to just a few ounces.

"It is remarkable that we got all of these various industries to agree to specific cuts. It's a first in this country,'' said David Thornton, assistant PCA commissioner for air policy.

But it's only a first step, with industry and environmental leaders hoping the state can lead by example. If other states, regions and nations don't also cut their mercury output, Minnesota's lakes -- and waterways worldwide -- won't see enough mercury reduction to make all fish safe for all people to eat.

"We've taken the lead. We've set the example. Now we need others to follow,'' Thornton said.


In 2006, the PCA and industries agreed in principle to cut Minnesota mercury output from 3,133.4 pounds to 789 pounds by 2025. The Environmental Protection Agency approved the plan in March 2007 as the state moved to comply with the federal Clean Water Act.

Since then, PCA and industry officials have been negotiating at least monthly to determine exactly how those cuts would be reached.

The biggest cuts will come from reductions at coal-fired powerplants, from 1,716 pound in 2005 to 235 pounds by 2025, with most of the cuts coming within 10 years. Many of those cuts were announced in 2006 when Minnesota Power and Xcel Energy agreed to cut mercury at their largest plants.

Under the new plan, nearly all coal-fired plants will see cuts, including Minnesota Power's smallest plants. Other coal plants are being shuttered, and some will be converted to less-polluting natural gas.

Other industries were harder to pin down, often because technology has not yet been developed to pull mercury out of their smokestacks.

Taconite processing plants have agreed to cut mercury emissions by about 70 percent, from 734.8 pounds in 2005 to 210.8 pounds by 2025. But both PCA officials and industry officials concede they don't yet know how the cuts will be reached.

It will be even tougher to meet the goals as new mining projects come on line, releasing even more mercury. With new projects being built, taconite mercury pollution is expected to increase by nearly 10 percent before it starts to drop. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has joined with the iron mining industry to research ways to cut mercury.

Scott Vagle, of U.S. Steel's Minnesota ore operations who served on the PCA mercury task force, did not return messages left this week. Officials for Cleveland Cliffs said they were unable to talk about the issue Wednesday.

Nancy Lange, clean air program coordinator for the Izaak Walton League of America who served on the mercury task force, said the taconite industry was among the hardest to bring on board. Because the industry is unique, there is no similar model for mercury controls.

"Eventually everyone agreed that taconite's answer, that they were 'doing research,' simply wasn't enough,'' Lange said. "The taconite industry was hearing, even from other industries, that they needed to step up. And they did.''

Making it work

While the industry-specific cuts won't be written into any law, they will be written into each factory's air emissions permits the next time they are renewed, giving them the full effect of law.

The PCA also will adopt new mercury rules that will have the effect of law.

Many Minnesota waterways carry warnings for people to limit the amount of fish they eat, especially women and children. The Clean Water Act mandates that all waterways be fishable, drinkable and swimmable.

"Our goal in all of this is to reduce fish consumption advisories ... from people eating fish only once each month to being able to eat fish once each week,'' said Ned Brooks, mercury coordinator for the PCA.

Opponents at first balked at the cuts, saying it would cost millions of dollars in new pollution control equipment to cut mercury and that the effort could cost Minnesota's economy and jobs.

Moreover, critics noted that most of the toxic mercury that falls into Minnesota lakes and rivers likely comes from distant smokestacks, sometimes as far away as China.

But supporters say Minnesota must take the lead in reducing mercury emissions, much as the state did 30 years ago cutting sulfur emission that cause acid rain. After that, other states, the federal government and even other countries followed suit. Minnesota also has set carbon-cutting goals to combat climate change, a global issue.

"Minnesota's process is being watched by EPA and by other states,'' Lange said. "We heard many times at the table how little mercury actually comes from Minnesota. ... But I was impressed with the commitment to put that aside and still take action.''

The Minnesota mercury effort, even if matched elsewhere, may not be enough to remove all of the state's lakes from mercury warnings, however. Lakes in Northeastern Minnesota tend to have fish with higher concentrations of mercury, and scientists aren't sure why or exactly how to solve the problem.

The new plan calls for any new projects, including mining proposals in Northeastern Minnesota, to offset any increase in mercury that they might contribute, in some cases at a 2-to-1 ratio.

"That's going to make it challenging for some of the new projects, especially new mining projects,'' Lange said.