Taconite plants face environmental challenge

Taconite ready to go
Minneosta's plan for the taconite industry directs plants to use best practices in running their furnaces, and operate them efficiently and cleanly. The EPA decided that is not enough and wants further effort to cut pollution.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

Minnesota's taconite companies face a major environmental challenge in November when the federal government decides whether to require significant reduction in air pollution that causes haze in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyaguers National Park.

These regulations have been a long time coming, and the decision isn't clear yet.

It all goes back to the 1977 amendments to the Clean Air Act. Congress directed the Environmental Protection Agency to cut the pollution that plagues supposedly pristine areas such as national parks, and caused haze that degrades the environment and contributes to human health problems.

The three special areas in and around Minnesota — the Boundary Waters, Voyageurs National Park, and Isle Royale National Park — are polluted by emissions from around the world and across the country. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency says about one-third of the haze comes from inside Minnesota, and of that third, about half comes from northeastern Minnesota close to the parks.

The main culprits are sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, commonly called NOx.

The MPCA has been working on the problem for at least seven years. The agency doesn't break down the contributions by industry, but researchers say all but two of Minnesota's taconite plants contribute to more hazy days than Xcel Energy's coal-fired power plant in Sherburne County. The largest taconite plant, Minntac, contributes to haze in the parks every other day, on average.

Minnesota's plan to reduce emissions from power plants like Sherco was recently approved by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. But the state plan for the taconite industry merely directed plants to use best practices in running their furnaces, and operate them efficiently and cleanly. The EPA decided that was not enough.

Meanwhile, the Minntac plant, owned by U.S. Steel, was trying out a new type of burner in its pellet furnace. Called a low-NOx burner, it is designed to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions.

That type of burner can cut NOx pollution by up to 70 percent, said the EPA's Douglas Aburano.

Cleveland Cliffs, Inc
This undated file photo provided by Cleveland Cliffs, Inc., shows the company's Hibbing Taconite mine located in Hibbing, Minn.
AP Photo/Cleveland Cliffs Inc., File

"Controls do seem to be feasible and economically reasonable, so we think that could be applied at the different facilities that are not currently applying that technology," Aburano said.

But engineers at Cliffs Natural Resources, which owns or operates three plants in Minnesota and two in Michigan, say they are unsure the low-NOx burners will work in their furnaces.

Attorney Douglas McWilliams, who advises Cliffs on environmental issues, told EPA officials at a meeting today that the federal government should offer more than a 45-day comment period on their plan, or even better, approve the state plans offered by Michigan and Minnesota.

"These two states, Michigan and Minnesota, have decades of direct experience regulating taconite mines and their pelletizing furnaces that EPA cannot hope to replicate," McWilliams said. "Minnesota and Michigan are in a better position to assess the time and resources that it will take to evaluate the next generation of emission controls for this industry."

McWilliams said it will take months to design burner systems that might work for each furnace, months more to model emission reductions, and even months more to determine how much it will all cost.

The EPA plan gives companies rolling deadlines — up to five years — to have systems operational.

Environmental groups are pleased that the EPA stepped in to impose a plan. Kevin Reuther, an attorney representing several environmental groups, including Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness and the National Parks Conservation Association, said the episode raises a question as to whether the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is capable of regulating the mining industry.

"With this particular industry, it's really hard for the MPCA to get it right. EPA had to come in and say look, this is not the best available retrofit technology, you haven't identified any technology, the state plan didn't require them to do anything," Reuther said. "That's why the EPA has this backstop role when the states don't act according to law. And that's what happened here."

It may just be a matter of time before all the taconite plants switch to the new low-NOx burners. The MPCA's Catherine Neuschler worked on the state plan, and she says the burners are very promising.

"We think under the long-term strategy of our haze plan, which is sort of the next step, that the facilities will have to look at low-NOx burners or other technologies to reduce their emissions," Neuschler said. "We think that information is coming, it's just not here yet."

The federal government is bound by a court agreement to approve its plan by Nov. 15.

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