Voluntary Effort Hasn't Reduced Mercury Emissions

From: Robina Suwol
Date: 16 Jan 2002
Time: 16:17:58
Remote Name:


STATE ENVIRONMENT: Effort hasn't reduced mercury BY DENNIS LIEN Pioneer Press (St. Paul, MN) 

Three years ago, a task force of environmental, industry and state interests agreed on a voluntary approach to reduce mercury emissions in Minnesota. Now, its first report card shows minimal progress, with paper achievements and no substantive reductions in pollution. Environmentalists who argued against the voluntary approach say that they're disappointed and that the lack of progress was all too predictable. The state's largest mercury polluter, meanwhile, insists it's doing all it can, but is hamstrung by a lack of advanced technology and concerns that plant work might go unrecognized under coming federal regulations. Complicating the situation is a recent decision by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to adjust a 1990 baseline upon which progress is to be measured. The agency concluded that more mercury was released into the environment a decade ago than was previously believed. On paper, at least, that makes it appear the state has been even more successful at reducing mercury pollution, even though smokestack emissions have not been cut. The findings are included in an MPCA draft report expected to be finalized soon and sent to the Legislature. "What the report shows is there have been few real reductions in Minnesota, the voluntary approach raises significant fairness problems, and it has done nothing to solve the problems in the state,'' said J. Drake Hamilton, science policy director for Minnesotans for an Energy-Efficient Economy. Lee Eberley, air-quality manager for Xcel Energy, which owns most of the state's mercury-emitting, coal-fired plants, disagreed. "We are further along than we thought we were, and that is not all bad,'' said Eberley, who contends the technology doesn't exist yet to make the kind of progress environmentalists demand. A naturally occurring metal that is spread through the air and water by a variety of man-made sources, mercury also is a toxin that causes neurological damage in fetuses and young children. Exposure typically occurs by eating contaminated fish, with predatory fish such as walleye, bass and northern pike having the highest concentrations. For years, the state has issued guidelines for people eating fish from state waters. The task force's first goal -- a 60 percent reduction in emissions between 1990 and 2000 -- was accomplished immediately by recognizing steps in the early 1990s such as banning or reducing mercury in paint, batteries and certain electrical equipment. Its 70 percent reduction goal by 2005, however, depended on a 10 percent to 20 percent decline in emissions from coal plants, which spew out as much or more mercury as ever. The MPCA's baseline adjustment propels the program to within 2 percent of its 2005 goal. "I think people involved in the process contemplated mercury would be reduced to 2,500 pounds by 2005 to meet the goal,'' said Peter Bachman, executive director of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. "Now, the report seems to say that goal will be met, not by reductions, but by the adjusted inventory.'' The draft said the approach has produced information about controlling mercury faster than would otherwise have occurred. But it conceded that lack of measurable reductions or commitments and inconsistent regulatory oversight undermine the effort's credibility. The report, for example, said regulating some sources, such as wastewater treatment plants, and not others, such as power plants, presents fairness problems. "Without specific, measurable expectations for individual participants, the program has mostly only added a new element of uncertainty for both the public and the facilities during review and permitting,'' it said. The only quantifiable reduction tied directly to the program is Minnesota Power's decision to use lower-mercury coal, which cuts mercury emissions by 60 pounds a year, a small part of the problem. "As consumers of products, Minnesotans have done a good job reducing mercury,'' said Paula Maccabee, a spokeswoman for the Sierra Club. "But I think companies that generate the large share of emissions haven't done what they should, or have, to do.'' The Sierra Club recommended the MPCA or the Legislature adopt tougher measures. Eberley, however, said the voluntary approach is appropriate. He contended there isn't demonstrated technology to remove mercury from smokestack emissions. As a result, he said, Xcel is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to research technologies that would work. Meanwhile, he said, the utility has undertaken other projects, such as converting two units at a Burnsville plant from coal to natural gas and championing a mercury-sniffing dog in state schools. 

Dennis Lien can be reached at dlien@pioneerpress.com or (651) 228-5588.

Last changed: July 18, 2006