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plan weakened by the MPCA
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.
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.
fish have been found in more than 800 Minnesota lakes and
many rivers, prompting health warnings to limit consumption.
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.
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.
were very cognizant about talking to industry ahead of talking
to others," said Lisa Thorvig, MPCA assistant commissioner
for water policy.
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
was a deliberate deception that they thought they could
get by with," Anderson said.
MPCA contends that the changes to the presentation were
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
Robertson, environmental policy consultant for the state
Chamber, said that industries affected by the mercury plan
were pleased with the MPCA approach.
wouldn't characterize anything we did as us trying to write
their document or dictate what they should do," he
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.
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.
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.
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.
year they stall means millions of dollars in their pockets,"
the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency website:
of the most serious ways people are exposed to mercury is
through eating contaminated fish.
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.
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.