Tuesday, June 28, 2022
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State finds urgent need for mercury reduction

Minnesota needs to do a lot more to reduce mercury emissions in order to make the fish safer to eat. And relying on voluntary efforts won't be enough. That's the gist of a new report from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Duluth, Minn. — Back in 1999, Minnesota adopted a voluntary mercury reduction plan. It called on businesses and agencies to come up with ways to reduce mercury emissions by 70%. But the plan didn't specify how.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency now reports the state has met that goal. But MPCA officials say the vast majority of the reductions have come as a result of state and federal laws that required removal of mercury from certain products. Ned Brooks is the mercury reduction coordinator for the MPCA.

"Paints and fungicides and batteries were three products that mercury was removed from since 1990 that allowed us to significantly reduce emissions," he says.

Brooks admits the voluntary program has been less successful in reducing mercury emissions from the biggest mercury polluter -- electric utilities. In fact, power plants are putting out more mercury now than they did when the voluntary program was set up.

Until now, there have been no state or federal regulations on mercury emissions from power plants. In June, the federal Environmental Protection Agency issued the Clean Air Mercury Rule which sets up a "cap and trade" program for coal-fired utility plants.

That means plants that remove mercury can sell allowances to other plants that don't.

Ned Brooks says many Minnesota utilities would find it expensive to reduce mercury, and would end up purchasing allowances from elsewhere.

"So EPA's modeling predicts that reductions would be lesser in Minnesota than they would be in other parts of the country," he says.

But that's not all bad, he says, because most of the mercury polluting Minnesota's lakes and fish comes into the state from elsewhere.

The MPCA is now turning to a new approach to cleaning up mercury pollution.

It's called TMDL. It stands for Total Maximum Daily Load, and it's a calculation of the maximum amount of pollution that a lake or river can carry before water quality is damaged -- for instance, before the fish are unsafe to eat.

The federal Clean Water Act requires all states to study their waters, and to devise a way to reduce the pollution from all sources until the water is clean again.

"So this is one way that is useful to address the problem, come up with a goal, and implement the strategies we're going to need to meet the goal," Brooks says. "Because it's required by law."

The MPCA will soon release its report on the first phase of the TMDL process, which sets a goal of reducing mercury emissions by 93 percent.

Some environmental groups were unhappy with the TMDL process. They accused the MPCA of meeting improperly with industry representatives and then changing the plan. But Brooks says the document went through many drafts. He says the MPCA believes reducing mercury in the state by 93 percent will require regulations eventually.

And he says there will be plenty of time for public input as the agency figures out how to achieve that dramatic reduction. The consultation is expected to take at least a year.

But environmental groups don't want to wait that long. Nancy Lange is with the Izaak Walton League. She says several states, including Wisconsin, have passed laws requiring utilities to cut mercury emissions by as much as 90%. And she says Minnesota should do the same.

"I think the agency can act sooner," Lange says. "I think the legislature can act sooner. I think the technology and the understanding of how we regulate and control mercury is there and available."

Until recently, utilities have said the technology doesn't exist yet to capture mercury.

But Minnesota Power is now planning to install new equipment at two of its coal-burning plants -- equipment the manufacturer says will remove 90 percent of the mercury from the smokestacks.

The equipment is made in Sweden.

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