State regulators are preparing to add some enforcement teeth to rules meant to cut the haze that sometimes clouds the views in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park.
The haze over the pristine areas in northern Minnesota comes mostly from the state's older coal-fired power plants and the taconite plants on the Iron Range. Environmental groups, joined by the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service, say proposed changes to rules set by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in 2009 don't go far enough. Mining companies including United States Steel Corp. say they go too far.
The MPCA Citizens Board is due to vote Tuesday on whether to submit the proposed changes to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for approval as part of an EPA push to reduce haze at national parks and wilderness areas across the country. The haze that rises from Minnesota also affects Isle Royale National Park in Michigan.
The changes include new sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide limits for taconite plants. They also would allow power plants to follow broad new federal cap-and-trade emissions limits rather than a set of specific limits for specific plants that were required under the state's 2009 plan.
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The EPA says the cap-and-trade system will yield even greater improvements. But several environmental groups sharply dispute that and won a court order in Washington, D.C., that at least temporarily blocks the EPA from using that approach. The uncertainty over how the legal challenge will play out adds a wrinkle the MPCA board will have to consider.
The state is missing an opportunity for a more extensive cleanup, said Kevin Reuther, legal director of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. Relying on the federal cap-and-trade rule wouldn't force Minnesota power plants to use the best available technologies for reducing their emissions, he said. His group and some others want the MPCA to go farther and require Xcel Energy to install a more advanced technology at its Sherco power plant, Minnesota's largest.
"Sherco is the biggest polluter in the state," Reuther said. "Of all the power plants it causes more days of haze in Voyageurs and the Boundary Waters than other power plants."
Frank Prager, vice president of environmental policy and services for Xcel Energy, said Sherco will be very clean by the end of next year because of $50 million in upgrades under the 2009 rules. He acknowledged that the catalytic converter technology advocated by environmentalists would lower emissions even further, but said the added reductions would not be enough to justify the much higher cost.
Xcel Energy supports the MPCA's proposal but has some reservations due to the unsettled future of the EPA's proposed cap-and-trade pollution limits, Prager said. The 2009 rules have produced cost-effective improvements and should not be discarded until the legal challenges to the new rules are resolved, he said.
The EPA never fully approved the state's 2009 rules because, although they required the taconite plants to use the best available retrofit technology, they had no specific, enforceable limits for them. The MPCA lacked adequate data then to set those limits but has it now, said Catherine Neuschler, the MPCA's plan coordinator.
The U.S. Forest Service, which manages the BWCA, said in written comments to the MPCA that the new limits are too still high - in many cases higher than current emissions. The agency says that could lead to more pollution instead of the decreases needed to cut haze. The National Park Service submitted very similar comments.
U.S. Steel wrote that the proposed limits are still based on insufficient data and would put too high a burden on its Minntac and Keetac mines and processing plants. ArcelorMittal Minorca Mine Inc. and Cliffs Natural Resources Inc. have raised similar objections.