The Citizens Board of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency approved a plan Tuesday to reduce haze in Voyaguers National Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
The plan is required by the federal government, which wants states to clean up the air in the nation's biggest natural areas.
The haze in Minnesota's northern wilderness areas is the result of a complex and ever-changing mix of pollutants. But the MPCA is focusing on taconite plants and coal-fired power plants which have — up to now — escaped other pollution regulations.
Last month the MPCA staff presented a plan to the citizens' board that would reduce emissions. Cliffs Natural Resources said it would have trouble meeting the standards assigned to its plants in Hibbing and Eveleth. The citizens' board told its staff to negotiate with the company.
The result is a new plan, which gives the company more flexibility and less stringent standards. In a statement Tuesday, Cliffs said it will be a challenge to meet the limits with currently available technology.
Attorney Kevin Reuther, who represents several environmental groups including Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness and the National Parks Conservation Association, said it's wrong for the agency to negotiate an agreement with industry on such a major issue and not give time for the public to respond.
"But the bigger issue is that PCA is giving taconite a total pass," Reuther said. "They're not required to anything under this plan; they get to continue to emit as they have historically."
The plan relies on taconite producers to adjust their furnaces to reduce nitrogen oxide pollution. Environmental groups say it's time to require them to install cleaner-burning furnaces.
Catherine Neuschler, the MPCA's Regional Haze plan coordinator, said the agency doesn't have enough information to insist on that newer technology.
"With these new limits, it's really going to force them to take a hard look at their processes, their emissions, and really fine-tune them as they can with the existing technology," Neuschler said.
Neuschler said she expects eventually all the taconite plants will need to move to the cleaner furnaces to meet new federal air standards.
The haze rule must be approved by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. In February the EPA urged the state to consider requiring the new furnaces.
For coal-fired power plants, the state plan relies on a separate federal rule, which allows for pollution trading among power plants. That rule is being challenged in federal court.