State, U.S. officials at odds over how quickly the taconite industry must clear the air over prime wilderness areas.
The taconite industry is squarely in the middle of an unusual public dispute between state and federal pollution officials about how to improve air quality in northeastern Minnesota.
At issue is how to comply with the federal Clean Air Act's requirements to reduce haze that obscures vistas in many national parks and wilderness areas, including the Boundary Waters, Voyageurs National Park and Isle Royale National Park in Michigan.
The main cause of the smog is pollution, not the occasional natural sources of humidity or wildfire smoke.
At a hearing in St. Paul on Wednesday, a federal panel listened to environmental leaders, taconite executives and others who praised or condemned the state's approach and a new federal alternative.
"My wife and I live in a world of death and toxicity and haze, and we want it cleaned up," said Bob Tammem of Soudan, Minn., who worked in the taconite industry before retiring.
Industry officials pledged to reduce emissions, but said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wants them to adopt unavailable, untested and too-expensive technology.
What divides the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and the EPA is how quickly six taconite plants in Minnesota and one in Michigan should reduce certain emissions.
Feds offer plan
To process iron ore into pellets, mammoth furnaces burn fossil fuels such as coal. What goes out the smokestack includes several pollutants, including sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. Those emissions form particles in the air, blocking light and impairing visibility.
Federal law requires states to submit plans on how to reduce haze in the nation's premier public lands. In 2009, Minnesota sent its plan to the EPA for cutting emissions at five older power plants and the six taconite mines and processing operations through 2018, with more reductions to follow.
EPA officials approved of the changes for the power plants but said the MPCA did not go far enough in regulating the taconite industry. The MPCA's approach required the taconite firms to use "good combustion practice," but did not require substantial reductions in pollution, they said.
So the EPA wrote its own plan for how the taconite operations should perform, including retrofitting plants with cleaner burners to dramatically cut nitrogen oxide emissions.
Mining executives blasted the EPA's proposed rule. Mike Mlinar, vice president for Cliffs Natural Resources Inc., said the EPA was mandating a "one-size-fits-all" approach to an industry in which all furnaces are unique. The company owns three of the six taconite operations that would be affected. The others are owned by U.S. Steel and ArcelorMittal.
Scott Gischia, director of environmental compliance for Cliffs, said the EPA should withdraw the rule. "The technology simply is not available to the industry at this point in time, and the time frames proposed by the EPA are quite simply unrealistic," he said.
Free pass or first step
Environmental leaders and others said the federal alternative was long overdue because the state has given the taconite industry a free pass to pollute.
"Taconite for decades has evaded [pollution] control while other industries have moved ahead," said Kevin Reuther, legal director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. He said the MPCA took 10 years to come up with a strategy to reduce haze that does nothing.
According to federal estimates, about one-fourth of the haze in Minnesota is produced by sources in the state. Most of the rest comes from other states, which are required to propose their own plans.
Wayne Dupuis, environmental program manager for the Fond du Lac band of Lake Superior Chippewa, said the MPCA has been "shirking its responsibility" to get the taconite industry under control.
MPCA officials did not testify, but Catherine Neuschler, air policy coordinator of the state plan, defended it as a "good first step" toward regulating taconite emissions. Limits for nitrogen oxides have been established for the first time, she said in an interview, and that's progress.
"It will require them to fine tune and watch their process and make sure they're minimizing their emissions," she said. The state prefers a step-by-step approach, said Neuschler, as part of a long-term strategy of reductions.
The EPA has already rejected part of the state's proposal, but it may also modify its plan based on oral testimony and written comments received before Sept. 28. The agency expects to publish a final rule in mid-November.
Tom Meersman 612-673-7388