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PROTECT OUR KIDS: Stop the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency from Weakening Mercury Laws at Industry's Request

Sign petition here!

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has weakened a statewide proposal to reduce smokestack mercury emissions after giving utility and industry officials an early, behind-the-scenes opportunity to suggest revisions.

While discussing the draft plan with major mercury emitters, including Minnesota Power and Xcel Energy, MPCA officials last fall refused to meet with environmental groups that support tough regulation of the toxic heavy metal. At one point, an MPCA official told environmental groups that there was nothing to talk about...

"We were very cognizant about talking to industry ahead of talking to others," said Lisa Thorvig, MPCA assistant commissioner for water policy...

Mike Robertson, environmental policy consultant for the state Chamber, said that industries affected by the mercury plan were pleased with the MPCA approach...

Mercury-contaminated fish have been found in more than 800 Minnesota lakes and many rivers, prompting health warnings to limit consumption...

Mercury is a potent toxin that is emitted into the air, eventually settles on land or waterways, then accumulates in fish tissue. Its presence in Minnesota lakes and rivers has prompted fish consumption advisories because small amounts can damage the brain and nervous systems of people who eat contaminated fish.

(full article here)

(full draft plan here)


Comments: Written comments about the draft plan will be accepted until Sept. 17. Mail responses to:
Howard D. Markus
Minnesota Pollution Control Agency
520 Lafayette Road N.
St. Paul, MN, 55155-4194.

Or e-mail: howard.markus@pca.state.mn.us

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Questions regarding this issue: Craig@organicconsumers.org

Note: If you have problems submitting the data on this petition form, it is due to high traffic levels on this website. You can also submit your petition information directly via email to
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Mercury plan weakened by the MPCA

7/31/2005
Tom Meersman
Star Tribune

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency last year weakened a statewide proposal to reduce smokestack mercury emissions after giving utility and industry officials an early, behind-the-scenes opportunity to suggest revisions.

While discussing the draft plan with major mercury emitters, including Minnesota Power and Xcel Energy, MPCA officials last fall refused to meet with environmental groups that support tough regulation of the toxic heavy metal. At one point, an MPCA official told environmental groups that there was nothing to talk about.

Mercury-contaminated fish have been found in more than 800 Minnesota lakes and many rivers, prompting health warnings to limit consumption.

Internal agency documents show that an MPCA draft plan in October called for specific mercury-reduction targets in 2015 and later years. After showing that proposal to industry officials, MPCA officials dramatically rewrote it, eliminating the target dates and making other key changes. The plan does not require emission controls.

Top MPCA officials defended their decision to give industries early access to the proposal, saying that affected companies' views are important and that environmentalists could comment later. The plan to eventually reduce mercury emissions by 93 percent was made public in December, and is now open for comments from anyone.

"We were very cognizant about talking to industry ahead of talking to others," said Lisa Thorvig, MPCA assistant commissioner for water policy.

A Minnesota Chamber of Commerce consultant who participated in the industry discussions with MPCA said he assumed that environmental groups would get an opportunity to present their views.

One group that hoped to influence MPCA officials about mercury is the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, and last August the group's leaders believed MPCA's door would be open for discussions. Then the MPCA canceled four meetings with the center and other environmental groups between August and early December.

The cancellations made the groups suspicious. To find out what was going on, the center made a request under the state public records law for MPCA documents and e-mails about the process. The center furnished copies of the documents to the Star Tribune.

"Minnesota has changed from being a leader to being in the pocket of industry," said Kris Sigford, water policy director for the center, which is based in St. Paul. "It has written a plan designed to do nothing."

Separately, environmentalist Len Anderson requested information that MPCA had given to industry last October. MPCA sent him a PowerPoint presentation. Later, Anderson said, he learned that the presentation had been altered to omit key information about mercury-reduction deadlines.

"That was a deliberate deception that they thought they could get by with," Anderson said.

The MPCA contends that the changes to the presentation were minor.

It's not the first time environmentalists have complained about industry groups having an inside track in setting policy. National environmental groups were not invited to meetings that Vice President Dick Cheney convened in 2001 to formulate proposals for a federal energy policy. And environmentalists discovered earlier this year that the Environmental Protection Agency inserted language from utility lobbyists into a proposed mercury rule published in the Federal Register.

Mercury is a potent toxin that is emitted into the air, eventually settles on land or waterways, then accumulates in fish tissue. Its presence in Minnesota lakes and rivers has prompted fish consumption advisories because small amounts can damage the brain and nervous systems of people who eat contaminated fish.

Federal law requires states to develop plans to cut back mercury emissions from in-state sources. In Minnesota, those sources represent only part of the problem -- 90 percent of airborne mercury comes from out-of-state sources.

Minnesota began working on a long-range control plan more than a year ago. One early draft envisioned progressive reduction targets to 2035. It left open whether reductions would be voluntary or mandatory.

According to internal MPCA e-mails and documents, officials began weakening the plan almost immediately after meeting with utility, mining and other industry leaders at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce on Oct. 26. Revisions of the plan and informal discussions with industry officials continued for seven weeks.

Each revision deleted more information that supported specific deadlines and mandatory reductions. Officials removed references to Wisconsin's new rule for controlling mercury, which requires four major utilities to reduce mercury emissions by 40 percent by 2010 and 75 percent by 2015.

MPCA workers also took out paragraphs that said technology is now available to remove significant amounts of mercury from certain kinds of power plants. They dropped language suggesting that mercury emissions are expected to increase if mandatory controls aren't placed on sources like coal-fired power plants.

In the draft plan made public in December, specific deadlines had been deleted. Failure to achieve goals would not necessarily trigger government action. And mercury reductions in Minnesota were tied not to dates, but to whether the federal government achieves national reductions, something that's difficult to measure and may not succeed for decades.

One top MPCA official said the changes were needed because earlier drafts had problems, not because the industry had influence over the process. "The things that were said to us were treated like any other public comment," said Ann Seha, assistant commissioner for air policy.

She said the plan, which must be approved by federal officials, states the scientific basis and need for mercury reductions. The way to achieve mercury reductions will be outlined and debated in the future, she said.

"It's a big decision when you might require reductions and how much we should do," Seha said, "especially when you might require reductions that ... will directly show up in Minnesotans' electric rates."

Environmentalists say the mercury pollution also carries a cost -- to tourism and to public health -- that MPCA is not considering. "You'd think the agency would want to present some of that information and lay it out to the public so that we could compare the costs and look at the options," said Patience Caso, water policy coordinator for Clean Water Action, another group shut out of the early review process. "It just seems like they've already made some drastic changes after talking only to industry."

Mike Robertson, environmental policy consultant for the state Chamber, said that industries affected by the mercury plan were pleased with the MPCA approach.

"I wouldn't characterize anything we did as us trying to write their document or dictate what they should do," he said.

Industries are concerned about mercury regulation, Robertson said, because most of Minnesota's fish contamination is caused by out-of-state sources. State companies can't ignore the problem, but reducing mercury in fish depends far more on federal action, he said.

Two Minnesota utilities are reducing mercury emissions, although overall levels from power plants and boilers in the state have increased over the past decade. Xcel will stop emitting mercury at two metropolitan-area power plants as they are converted from coal to cleaner natural gas. Minnesota Power reduced mercury emissions by switching to a different type of coal and is testing technology to remove even more.

"We're looking for what will be effective for the environment, and what will be cost effective for our ratepayers," said Margaret Hodnik, Minnesota Power's director of public affairs. She declined to comment on deadlines that were removed from the MPCA plan.

The utilities' voluntary efforts don't impress Anderson, the environmentalist who follows mercury issues related to the Great Lakes. He said garbage burners and medical waste incinerators have been required to make huge reductions in their mercury emissions, but that power companies and mining operations have done little.

"Each year they stall means millions of dollars in their pockets," he said.


From the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency website:

One of the most serious ways people are exposed to mercury is through eating contaminated fish.

Mercury can damage human health because it is toxic to the nervous system - the brain and spinal cord - particularly the developing nervous system of a fetus or young child. And it doesn't take much mercury. One million average-size northern pike from northern Minnesota lakes would contain just a pound of mercury altogether, yet the concentration in each fish would be high enough to call for limits on eating them.

The greatest risk, however, is for fetuses and young children because their nervous systems are still developing. They are four or five times more sensitive to mercury than adults. Damage occurring before birth or in infancy can cause a child to be late in beginning to walk and talk and may cause lifelong learning problems. Unborn children can be seriously affected even though the methylmercury causes no symptoms in their mothers.


 



MORE INFO:

 

Companies that met with the MPCA behind closed doors to "offer input" on what would become Minnesota's new regulations on mercury. Environmental groups requested similar meetings with the MPCA during this time, but were turned down:

•Barr Engineering Co.

•Flint Hills Resources

•Great River Energy

•Ispat Inland Mining Co.

•Minnesota Power

•Metropolitan Council Environmental Services

•Northshore Mining Co.

•Otter Tail Power Co.

•PolyMet Mining Corp.

•US Steel

•Western Lake Superior Sanitary District

•Xcel Energy


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Please also see OCA's "Appetite for a Change" campaign website... a campaign focused on children's environmental health.

 

 

 

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