For the first time, EPA to require taconite plants to slash mercury emissions

A large pile of iron pellet
The Northshore Mining plant in Silver Bay, Minn., is one of six taconite processing facilities in the state that will have to reduce mercury emissions under a new rule proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Dan Kraker I MPR News 2019

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed a new rule that for the first time would require mining companies to limit mercury emissions from taconite iron ore processing plants, which are the largest source of mercury pollution in the state.

The rule, announced by the EPA last week, would require the six taconite processing plants located in northeastern Minnesota to cut their emissions by 57 percent by the end of 2026.

It comes after two decades of litigation and advocacy from tribes and environmental groups to push the agency to adopt mercury limits. In 1990, Congress first required the EPA to set mercury emission standards for taconite plants by the year 2000. But the agency never did.

“We’re glad to see some limits at long last on this pollution,” said James Pew, an attorney with Earthjustice, which sued the EPA on behalf of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and two environmental groups.

But he thinks the EPA should have gone further, especially considering that limits were supposed to be put in place decades ago.

“Instead the agency has allowed it to build up for the last 20 years, and mercury is a persistent pollutant, so we’ve still got all the mercury that was emitted over the last 20 years in the environment,” he said.

Mercury is a naturally occurring element that is toxic to people and animals. Most mercury pollution enters the environment through air emissions, from smokestacks at power plants and heavy industry.

It then settles onto the land and makes its way into lakes and rivers, where it accumulates in fish. Minnesota has a statewide fish consumption guidance for mercury. If too much contaminated fish is eaten, mercury can cause serious health issues, including brain damage in children.

There’s significant mercury contamination in more than 1,300 lakes and rivers in the state. A Minnesota Department of Health study released in 2012 found one in 10 babies along the North Shore of Lake Superior were born with unhealthy levels of mercury in their bodies.

The state has a goal to slash the amount of mercury released from Minnesota smokestacks 76 percent from 2005 levels by 2025.

The state has made significant progress, and it met its interim 2018 goal. That’s largely because mercury emissions from power plants in Minnesota have plummeted in recent years, as coal plants have been retired or outfitted with pollution controls.

Still, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency says the state is not on pace to meet its 2025 goal, in large part because mercury pollution from the state’s six taconite mines has remained relatively flat. The taconite industry now accounts for about half the state’s mercury emissions.

In a statement, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency said that “Minnesota must safeguard its water and air while maintaining a strong mining economy on the Range.”

The agency said it delayed implementing its final mercury reduction plans until the EPA released its new standards to reduce mercury emissions, in order to provide the taconite industry more certainty moving forward.

Gov. Tim Walz has requested $17.6 million from the state’s general fund to provide grants to taconite facilities that are required to reduce pollutants in either air emissions or discharges to surface waters. The grants would require the mining companies to match the funding.

“The MPCA fully recognizes reducing mercury emissions from taconite processing is expensive,” the agency said in a statement, noting that the legislature is likely to approve the request.

Cleveland Cliffs and U.S. Steel, which own and operate the six taconite mines and pellet plants in northeast Minnesota, did not respond to requests for comment.

“We welcome limits on taconite plants’ emissions of mercury, which are badly needed and long overdue,” said Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Chairman Kevin Dupuis in a statement. “EPA needs to go further, however, and set stronger limits for mercury as well as limits for dioxins and other persistent pollutants that are poisoning our fish and waterways.”

The MPCA said taconite plants will need to submit updated plans in the spring of 2024.

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