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Signs of progress: What Minnesota is doing to improve air quality

Between 2008 and 2013, fine particle pollution in Minnesota decreased by about 10 percent. Ozone pollution rates remained unchanged.

Biodiesel nozzle
By requiring a 20 percent biodiesel blend during the warm weather months, Minnesota has reduced annual emissions from diesel vehicles by an estimated 143 tons of particulate pollution and 1,600 tons of carbon monoxide.
REUTERS/Mike Blake

This month the Minnesota Department of Health and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency released a joint report on air pollution and human health. The “Life and Breath” report was a follow-up to a 2015 joint report on air pollution in the Twin Cities metropolitan area. In this year’s report the agencies looked at health and pollution data gathered statewide.

This year, as in 2015, the report generated headlines in many news outlets. Many stories focused on the deaths linked in part to air pollution (as many as 4,000 as year); other stories looked at health inequities identified in the report, especially in Greater Minnesota. Generally speaking, few stories addressed what Minnesotans could do to reduce air pollution.

The American Lung Association has been working on ways to reduce air pollution in Minnesota for more than 20 years. We’re not alone – we’re part of Clean Air Minnesota, a public-private partnership that seeks to reduce air pollution by 10 percent. According to the 2019 Life and Breath report, that modest reduction in air pollution could prevent as many as 500 early deaths, 150 emergency room visits, and 70 hospital stays.

Here are a few things happening now to address air pollution in Minnesota:

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Cleaner fuels

By requiring a 20 percent biodiesel blend during the warm weather months, Minnesota has reduced annual emissions from diesel vehicles by an estimated 143 tons of particulate pollution and 1,600 tons of carbon monoxide. The price of this biodiesel blend is equivalent to traditional petroleum diesel, requires no new pumps or engine modifications to use. It also reduces lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 1.2 million tons.

Less coal

In the 1990s, coal-fired power plants provided 65 percent of the state’s electricity. Today, only about 37 percent of utility-scale electricity generation in Minnesota came from coal-fired plants, and that percentage is expected to continue to drop as the price of coal rises while the price of renewables drops. This trend away from coal was boosted when Xcel Energy announced its plans to shut down several coal plants in Minnesota, 10 years ahead of schedule.

Volkswagen dollars

Robert Moffitt
Robert Moffitt
As part of a nationwide legal settlement, Volkswagen will pay the state of Minnesota $47 million dollars. These funds must be used to reduce air pollution in the state, with a particular focus on nitrogen oxides (NOx), a pollutant associated with diesel engines and a key component of ground-level ozone, a major form of air pollution. These funds will be distributed by the MPCA over a 10-year period, and the agency is currently seeking public input on its second phase of grants. In addition to the settlement dollars, Electrify America, a VW-owned company, is building advanced electric vehicle charging stations across America. Electrify Minnesota’s first charging station in Minnesota is under construction now at a Walmart store in Woodbury, and should be open to the public soon.

Is it working?

Overall, air quality has slowly improved in Minnesota and across the nation since the landmark Clean Air Act was passed in 1970, though there is troubling recent news that our nation’s air quality grew worse over the past two years. At the same time, our medical knowledge and understanding of the health risks of air pollution has grown expeditiously.

There are signs of progress locally, which helps to demonstrate that we can achieve further reductions in air pollution. Between 2008 and 2013, the two years the Life and Breath reports analyzed, fine particle pollution in Minnesota decreased by about 10 percent. Ozone pollution rates remained unchanged. Some factors, such as drifting smoke from Canadian wildfires, are out of our immediate control. Other factors are in the hands of all Minnesotans: Which vehicle do we choose? How much electricity do we use? Could we share a ride to work or to school? In many ways, these many small decisions can have major effect on our air quality and our health.

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A changing climate is bringing new challenges to our air quality, and there is still much work to be done to reduce air pollution in our state. That said, Minnesota has acknowledged the problem and we are taking positive steps to make our air quality — and our health — the best in the nation.

Robert Moffitt is a director of outdoor air for the American Lung Association office based in St. Paul.

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