A plan by Minnesota's largest smokestack industries to reduce mercury emissions is set to be unveiled this week before the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's board in St. Paul.
The plan, which has been in the works for years, would cut the amount of toxic mercury being emitted in Minnesota's air over the next 18 years. Mercury pollution is a concern, because it eventually falls to the ground and can contaminate fish.
Industrial operations - from power plants to taconite plants to crematoriums - have agreed to cut the amount of mercury that leaves their smokestacks in what's viewed as the biggest step ever taken to reduce such pollution in the state and perhaps nationwide.
"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, the MPCA's assistant commissioner for air policy.
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Thornton said environmental and industry leaders hope Minnesota can lead other states to also cut mercury emissions, because the quality of Minnesota's waterways are not solely dependent on emissions within the state's borders.
The new mercury reduction plan comes after the Environmental Protection Agency last year approved a deal between the industries and the MPCA to cut mercury output from 3,133 pounds to 789 pounds by 2025.
State officials and industry representatives have been working since then to determine how to reach that goal. The biggest reductions will come at coal-fired power plants, where mercury emissions would go from 1,716 pounds in 2005 to 235 pounds by 2025.
Taconite processing plants have agreed to cut their mercury emissions by about 70 percent, but it isn't yet clear how the cuts will be achieved. Meanwhile, new taconite mining projects being developed in the state are expected to increase mercury pollution by 10 percent before the emissions start dropping.
There are also no similar models for mercury controls for the taconite industry, and mercury task force member Nancy Lange said it was difficult to get the industry on board with the reduction plan.
"Eventually everyone agreed that taconite's answer, that they were 'doing research,' simply wasn't enough," said Lange, clean air program coordinator for the Izaak Walton League of America. "The taconite industry was hearing, even from other industries, that they needed to step up. And they did."
The specific cuts will be written into each facility's air emissions permits during their next renewal.
While some people had initially opposed the cuts, saying they would cost too much, supporters pointed to Minnesota's opportunity to take the lead again on an environmental issue. It was 30 years ago that Minnesota officials took steps to cut sulfur emissions that cause acid rain, a move later duplicated by other states and the federal government.
"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."
Information from: Duluth News Tribune, http://www.duluthsuperior.com