FREE SPEECH ZONE | ACTION ALERT: MPCA betrays air quality in the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs National Park

"It's not the 'Minnesota Pollution Control Agency,' its the 'Minnesota Pollution Protection Agency'."

                 --Mark Dayton, while running for Governor of Minnesota

 

"Minnesota’s actions, combined with EPA’s simultaneous consideration, plainly deprive the

public of a meaningful opportunity to review and comment on this significant decision."

                 --Janette Brimmer, Earthjustice

 

"This is nothing but a shameful rollover to Minnesota's most politically empowered polluters."

                 --me

This is a long and complicated story we try to summarize very briefly.

The federal Clean Air Act seeks to protect air quality/visibility in national parks and wilderness areas.  States determined to be harming visibility in such "Class 1" areas are require to submit plans to fix the problem, and the US Environmental Protection Agency must approve the plans, or require that they be improved, until they comply with the Clean Air Act.  (Of course, the pollutants that limit visibility (create "regional haze") also damage human health and cause other problems.

Pollution originating in Minnesota has been determined to be causing haze in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Voyageurs National Park, and Isle Royale National Park. 

The biggest sources of this air pollution are taconite and steel making projects, and the Xcel energy Sherco coal burner.  These, of course, are also the most politically connected polluters in Minnesota.  Thus, the MPCA has submitted a plan to the EPA requiring Xcel and the taconite people to do--essentially--NOTHING.  (Xcel Energy says this about Sherco "The plant burns 30,000 tons of coal every day (three trainloads) and more than nine million tons a year. A rotary car dumper, which literally turns a rail coal car upside down, unloads one car every three minutes and an entire train in just over six hours.") 

The MPCA's official name for nothing is "BART"--Best Available Retrofit Technology.  Except that, in the MPCA's view, there isn't any.  The MPCA's plan, as submitted to the EPA for approval, basically says these facilities have already done all they should be required to do.  Anything more would be too expensive or technically impossible.  (in 2003, the MPCA hired Barr Engineering, a notorious polluters' consulting firm, to write a report concluding "The affordability of BART must be analyzed on a site-specific basis. Given the current economics of the industry, a significant cost burden associated with BART could impact the future viability of the industry.")   

How bad is it? 

On January 13, 2012, the United States Department of Agriculture (Forest Service) wrote:  (These letters are in this document.)

"We believe that the methodology used by your agency to set the BART emission limits results in limits that are too high and ask that you reconsider them. Our technical analysis is attached to this letter. In many cases your proposed BART emission limits are higher than current actual emissions and therefore could lead to emission increases instead of the decreases needed to improve visibility." 

"The MPCA should also re-evaluate the limits determined for Xcel Energy’s Sherburne County and Northshore Mining’s Power House and consider the comments made by EPA (in letters dated September 3, 2009 and June 6, 2011) and ourselves (in our 2009 letters). The recent stay of CSAPR puts its future in doubt.  The regional haze plans are more than four years overdue already. Please do not delay the plan and visibility improvement any longer by keeping Minnesota’s Regional Haze Plan tied to any of the federal trading rules. Please use source-specific BART limits in this plan."

On Feb. 2, 2012, the United States Department of the Interior (National Park Service) sent a similar letter, including:

"We are concerned that the MPCA's proposed BART limits will not make the progress envisioned by Congress."

On Feb. 3, 2012, Earthjustice wrote, On behalf of the National Parks Conservation Association, the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, Fresh Energy, and the Voyageurs National Park Association:

The most recent ... submittal, does not contain the legally required measures that will ensure reasonable progress toward eliminating visibility impairment in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs and Isle Royale National Parks. In particular, the SIP Supplement does not meet the applicable requirements of the Clean Air Act (“CAA”) in its proposal to substitute the Cross State Air Pollution Rule (“CSAPR”) for best available retrofit technology ("BART") for electric generating units ("EGUs") and in the proposed BART determinations (or lack of BART) and in the proposed inadequate monitoring for taconite facilities. Finally, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency ("MPCA") submitted the Supplement to the Environmental Protection Agency ("EPA") on January 5, 2012, and EPA has proposed its approval, all prior to completion of Minnesota's public comment process.1 Plainly, the public comment period is not considered meaningful by MPCA given that it has already decided to submit the Supplement to EPA and EPA has already proposed its approval, thereby frustrating the very goal of public process." 

On Feb 3, 2012, the Sierra Club wrote:

"Together the SIP Supplement and the 2009 SIP fail to contain the legally required measures that will ensure reasonable progress toward eliminating visibility impairment and improving air quality in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs and Isle Royale National Parks. Specifically, the SIP Supplement’s proposal to substitute the Cross State Air Pollution Rule ("CSAPR") for best available retrofit technology ("BART") for electric generating units ("EGUs") fails to meet the requirements of the Clean Air Act ("CAA")."

"Xcel Energy Sherco facility in Becker, Minnesota is the largest single source of pollutants damaging these Class I areas. This is shown by MPCA’s own modeling ... Assuming CSAPR goes into effect, it would allow Sherco unit 2 to emit 5789 tons of sulfur dioxide ("SO2") for 2012 and 2014.1 Sherco unit 2 emitted less than that—5250 tons of SO2—in 2010.2 The CSAPR allowance would thus allow Sherco—perhaps the worst polluter in the region for Class I areas—to increase its SO2 pollution emissions. Instead of making reasonable progress toward eliminating haze, as the Clean Air Act requires, Minnesota is proposing to make progress toward allowing more haze, by authorizing Sherco to increase emissions.." 

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has departed from professionalism and integrity, instead acting as the servant of the big polluters it is supposed to be regulating.  Nonetheless, the EPA has noticed it's intent to APPROVE the scandalous Minnesota proposal.  (Of course, it is not the fault of the staff of the MPCA if Minnesotans elect governors more interested in protecting polluters than protecting natural resources, and political pressure from Xcel and mining interests has been intense.)  Coddling of the mining industry is actually built into the structure of the MPCA--a "Metallic Mining Sector" shop separate from the normal air and water permitting functions, and dedicated to greasing the skids for mining industry permits.  See it in this organizational chart

What can people do at this point?  The EPA public comment period closes Feb 24th.  There is an action alert from the National Parks Conservation Association you can use to send comments to the EPA:

" Protect Air Quality in National Parks and Wilderness Areas from Minnesota Polluters"

Contact Governor Dayton and Paul Aasen, Commissioner of the MPCA, ask that the Minnesota "SIP" submission to the EPA be WITHDRAWN until Minnesota public participation requirements have been complied with:

MPCA Commissioner Paul Aasen:    Paul [dot] Aasen [at] state [dot] mn [dot] us (Paul [dot] Aasen [at] state [dot] mn [dot] us) , Phone: 651/757-2016, Fax: 651-296-7923 

Governor Mark Dayton:  mark [dot] dayton [at] state [dot] mn [dot] us (mark [dot] dayton [at] state [dot] mn [dot] us) , Phone: 651-201-3400, Fax: 651-797-1850 

Ask EPA to NOT approve the plan:

Lisa Jackson, Administrator, USEPA Phone 202-564-4700, jackson [dot] lisap [at] epa [dot] gov (jackson) .lisapjackson [dot] lisap [at] epa [dot] gov (@epa.gov) 

Susan Hedman, Administrator, EPA Region 5, Phone 312-886-3000, hedman [dot] susan [at] epa [dot] gov (hedman [dot] susan [at] epa [dot] gov) 

Below is a letter written to the head of the EPA:

Hon. Lisa Jackson, Administrator

United States Environmental Protection Agency

 

Re: Minnesota Regional Haze Draft State Implementation Plan Supplement

 

Dear Administrator Jackson:

I am very concerned that the EPA has noticed its intent to approve the Regional Haze SIP submission of the State of Minnesota.  The submission is strongly objected to as inadequate by the Federal Land Managers responsible for stewardship of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Voyageurs National Park, and Isle Royale National Park.  For example, On January 13, 2012, the United States Department of Agriculture (Forest Service) wrote:  (These letters are in this document.)

"We believe that the methodology used by your agency to set the BART emission limits results in limits that are too high and ask that you reconsider them. Our technical analysis is attached to this letter. In many cases your proposed

BART emission limits are higher than current actual emissions and therefore could lead to emission increases instead of the decreases needed to improve visibility."

"The MPCA should also re-evaluate the limits determined for Xcel Energy’s Sherburne County and Northshore Mining’s Power House and consider the comments made by EPA (in letters dated September 3, 2009 and June 6, 2011) and ourselves (in our 2009 letters). The recent stay of CSAPR puts its future in doubt.  The regional haze plans are more than four years overdue already. Please do not delay the plan and visibility improvement any longer by keeping Minnesota’s Regional Haze Plan tied to any of the federal trading rules. Please use source-specific BART limits in this plan."

The National Park Service submitted similar objections on Feb 2nd.  (letter also found in the linked document).

Environmental interests have voiced strong objections.  For example:  On Feb. 3, 2012, Earthjustice wrote, On behalf of the National Parks Conservation Association, the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, Fresh Energy, and the Voyageurs National Park Association:

The most recent ... submittal, does not contain the legally required measures that will ensure reasonable progress toward eliminating visibility impairment in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs and Isle Royale National Parks. In particular, the SIP Supplement does not meet the applicable requirements of the Clean Air Act (“CAA”) in its proposal to substitute the Cross State Air Pollution Rule (“CSAPR”) for best available retrofit technology ("BART") for electric generating units ("EGUs") and in the proposed BART determinations (or lack of BART) and in the proposed inadequate monitoring for taconite facilities. Finally, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency ("MPCA") submitted the Supplement to the Environmental Protection Agency ("EPA") on January 5, 2012, and EPA has proposed its approval, all prior to completion of Minnesota's public comment process.1 Plainly, the public comment period is not considered meaningful by MPCA given that it has already decided to submit the Supplement to EPA and EPA has already proposed its approval, thereby frustrating the very goal of public process."

Note that the objections are not only to the substance of the submittal but the fact that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has submitted it before completing the normal Minnesota public participation and formal adoption processes.

My conclusions:

o       The plan is inadequate in substance.  It constitutes a rollover to the strong political influence of the key dischargers.  A key purpose of Federal oversight is to ensure that such considerations do not override the purposes of the Clean Air Act.  EPA should reject the submittal and ask the MPCA to provide one consistent with the Clean Air Act.

o       EPA should not approve a plan that is not acceptable to the Departments of Agriculture (Forest Service) and Interior (National Park Service).  EPA should give due weight to the views of these Federal Land Managers and return the submittal to Minnesota for revision consistent with their recommendations.

o       EPA should not consider a plan that has not been subject to proper public participation requirements in Minnesota.  To do so mocks a key principle underlying delegation of Federal authority to the states.

o       EPA should not approve a plan relying on paperwork (trading schemes such as the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule) rather than installation of cleanup technology.  This is a concern both with the mining/mineral processing sources and the Xcel Energy "Sherco" coal plant.  These are among the largest air pollutant dischargers in Minnesota and there are no credible scenarios in which emissions sources of this magnitude and location could credibly be "offset" such as to control their visibility impacts in the target Class 1 areas.  (It many not be entirely flattering to the EPA and the MPCA that, as Earthjustice points our, the only detailed comparison of the two approaches comes from the US Forest Service.  This shows that the technology approach produces clearer air than the paperwork approach.  Not surprising.)

o       EPA should not accept contorted, technically indefensible Best Available Retrofit Technology (BART) determinations from the MPCA.  See the comments of the Forest Service and the National Park Service.  I note that in a recent, highly questionable permitting action, the MPCA and Region 5 accepted a conversion from natural gas burning to coal burning as a pollution reduction measure.

More broadly, it seems apparent that for quite a few years Minnesota has not adequately carried out the Clean Air Act responsibilities delegated to it by the EPA.  Permits are inadequate in their provisions, especially when the applicants are politically favored, permits go unrenewed for years, and enforcement is often weak-to-absent.  Problems with planning are apparent from the present issue.  (I have previously submitted comments on annual monitoring plans that appear, at least in part, to be designed to avoid monitoring where air quality violations are likely to be found.)  It appears to me that the response to these problems from Region 5 has also been weak-to-absent, as exemplified by the proposal to approve the flagrantly inadequate Regional Haze SIP submission.  Some may have expected that the election of a new Democratic governor in Minnesota would result in improvements, but this has not been the case.  Therefore, EPA should not only reject the subject SIP submission but should review the current effectiveness of the Minnesota air program and all other programs delegated to the State of Minnesota.  I specifically recommend that the air program delegation be revised around a Memorandum of Agreement, such that expectations and responsibilities be made clear and performance be subject to periodic and meaningful evaluation.  (It is my impression that the MPCA has many strengths, and is capable of much better performance if better performance is demanded.)

If these comments raise any questions please feel free to contact me.

Respectfully submitted,

Alan Muller

1110 West Avenue

Red Wing, MN 55066

302.299.6783

alan [at] greendel [dot] org

Copy:   Mark Dayton, Governor of Minnesota(mark [dot] dayton [at] state [dot] mn [dot] us ( mark [dot] dayton [at] state [dot] mn [dot] us))

Paul Aasen, Commissioner, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (Paul [dot] Aasen [at] state [dot] mn [dot] us (Paul [dot] Aasen [at] state [dot] mn [dot] us))

Susan Hedman, Administrator, EPA Region 5 (hedman [dot] susan [at] epa [dot] gov (hedman [dot] susan [at] epa [dot] gov))

Timothy H. Dabney, Acting Forest Supervisor, Superior National Forest (twickman [at] fs [dot] fed [dot] us (twickman) @fstwickman [at] fs [dot] fed [dot] us (.fed.us))

Susan Johnson, Air Resources Division, National Park Service (don [dot] shepherd [at] nps [dot] gov (don.shepherd@) npsdon [dot] shepherd [at] nps [dot] gov (.gov))

Janette K. Brimmer, Earthjustice (jbrimmer [at] earthjustice [dot] org (jbrimmer) @earthjusticejbrimmer [at] earthjustice [dot] org (.org))

John Summerhays, EPA Region 5 (summerhays [dot] john [at] epa [dot] gov (summerhays) summerhays [dot] john [at] epa [dot] gov ( [dot] john [at] epa [dot] gov))


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    Alan Muller

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    Notorious

    Just a comment on your statement:  "in 2003, the MPCA hired Barr Engineering, a notorious polluters' consulting firm, to write a report..."   It's a little unclear whether this is intended to disparage Barr, or the people who hire us, or both.  But I've worked at Barr for nearly 20 years, and I can tell you that Barr is a company of steadfast integrity.  "Pollution" is a consequence of many human activities, and it's quite true that "polluters" -- industries of many types -- hire Barr.  Our work then becomes to help them sort through regulatory issues and find sound scientific solutions to the problems resulting from their operations.  That's just part of the process we in the US have developed to deal with potential adverse consequences of human activity.  There's nothing wrong with people wanting to open a mine.  There's nothing wrong with people trying to help those people address regulatory concerns.  And, there's nothing wrong with others working to ensure that the BWCA remains haze-free.  It's all part of the process.