The 45-year-old towboat Itasca had its engines and generators replaced earlier this year.

And the Twin Cities became greener, more efficient and healthier as a result, thanks to the latest chapter from an unsung consortium of business, nonprofit and government players.

The 65-foot Itasca plies the Mississippi River from upper Iowa to St. Paul. It was relaunched at St. Paul last week following a $400,000 overhaul.

That included replacement of its two 617-horsepower main engines with new ones from Bloomington-based Ziegler Cat in a move that is going to save the Itasca’s owner 1,000-plus gallons of fuel annually and cut pollution by the equivalent of 16,000-plus cars on the road.

“Retrofitting the Itasca is not only the right thing to do for the environment, it’s good for our business,” said Lee Nelson, president of Upper River Services (URS), owner of the Itasca, the largest of what is now two heavy-duty tow boats URS has renovated. “This project will save us money in fuel consumption and the new engines will allow us to move more products while using less energy.”

URS was not required by law to do this.

The Twin Cities already meets the requisite federal ambient air-quality standard.

Even if you don’t buy the “global warming” argument, and I do in the same way that if eight-out-of 10 cancer doctors tell me I have trouble I believe them, there’s a good environmental-economic-health play going on here.

Upgrading to cleaner-burning, energy-saving equipment pays myriad dividends in the long run. The same way the displacement of dirty coal and oil-burning power plants by decentralized wind power, complemented by efficient gas plants, has brought cleaner power and thousands of new technology and service jobs throughout the Upper Midwest.

URS will save fuel — which is fortunate timing as prices are rising — thanks to the more-efficient engines, including two smaller ones. And the air will be that much cleaner. Air pollution long has been linked to environmental illnesses, including cancer.

“Reducing air pollution has major health benefits including decreasing the risk of respiratory and heart issues,” said Frank Acevedo, a program manager with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “This is a unique model of diverse partners coming together for individual and common benefits.”

This also is the latest step forward for Project Green Fleet, a 13-year-old collaboration among industry, nonprofits and government that started cleaning up old diesel school buses that have been linked to childhood asthma and other nasty stuff.

There is also a financial incentive that helped Upper River and other business people make the pollution-cutting conversions sooner rather than later.

Sixty percent of the cost of the Itasca’s engine-and-generator overhaul, for example was paid for by Upper River. The rest came from private donors, such as Flint Hills Resources. Over the years, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, Mayo Clinic, Xcel Energy and other companies have been involved.

“We recognize the pioneering leadership of these companies,” said Bill Droessler, a former insurance company lawyer who has run Project Green Fleet for the nonprofit Environmental Initiative since 2005. “URS is … moving ahead of when it would normally move to replace these engines.

“And if these companies didn’t come together with us, we would not get federal funds coming to Minnesota. The money would go to Chicago and Milwaukee, places not in compliance with federal ambient air-pollution standards. The funds that 3M, Flint Hills and others put in allow us to put packages together that have helped the whole state.”

The private sector has invested more than $10 for every $1 in public money invested in Project Green Fleet.

Environmental Initiative (EI) has been around for 25 years, building industry-regulator partnerships to mitigate Minnesota environmental issues that have achieved “measurable, positive, environmental outcomes.”

EI and the Minnesota Chamber spawned Clean Air Minnesota, a diverse coalition of industry, nonprofit and government air-quality specialists who work proactively on air-pollution issues. Over the years, Clean Air Minnesota, including Green Fleet, has cut the air-quality equivalent of 1.3 million cars from the road annually, fostering cost-effective projects from Grand Rapids to Rochester.

Droessler, who once worked on “Superfund” cases, cleaning up toxic pollution that threatened health and cost hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up, knows something about the price avoided by investing in prevention and creative solutions to environmental challenges.

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Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at