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Environmentalists take on MPCA over pollution in BWCA and northern parks

A pollution-bearing haze is coming from coal-fired power plants and taconite operations.

Voyageurs National Park on a clear day,left, and a hazy day,right.

The view in the BWCA isn’t what it used to be. The air, vaunted as some of the cleanest in the world, is growing more polluted. Sunsets and sunrises are dimmed by haze. Nobody is happy about the pollution. It is ugly and federal and state law protects it from this type of smog.  Enforcing it is another thing.

Under the Clean Air Act, the BWCA, Voyageurs National Park and Isle Royal are designated as Class I sites. Congress declared these parks should be free of air pollution. In some areas of the parks and wilderness views are obscured by pollution half of the time.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the pollution-bearing haze is coming from coal-fired power plants and taconite operations in the state. The haze plume from the Sherco power plant in Sherburne County is, by far, the greatest single contributor to the problem in the Class I areas. The taconite plants on the Iron Range have been, largely, untouched by emissions regulations, and those emissions count for much of the haze.

So there is a battle brewing between environmental groups and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). The fight is over which rules to use to achieve lower emissions and a cleaner environment for our protected parks and wilderness areas. The two rules have cartoon names. One is named BART and the other is called CASPER. BART stands for “Best Available Retrofit Technology” and CASPER stands for “Cross State Air Pollution Rule.”

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Environmentalists say that the cleanup of the parks can be done more efficiently and effectively under the BART rules. BART has jurisdiction over both electric generating units and taconite plants. CASPER has power over only the power plants, leaving taconite emissions unaffected.

The EPA has signaled that it wants CASPER substituted for BART, but environmental groups point out that CASPER has been staid in court and, for all intents and purposes, is not even a law at the present time. They also point out that CASPER allows electric generating units to continue to emit at high levels, rather than reduce them through technology, as long as the electric utilities buy offsets, a sort of dispensation, from others who emit less.

In a letter from the United States Forest Service (USFS) supervisor of the Superior National Forest, James Sanders writes the USFS concluded that CASPER “will not drive any emission reductions in Minnesota.”

Long-off deadline

The EPA doesn’t seem in a big hurry to clean up the BWCA and the National Parks in northern Minnesota. It has set a deadline for cleanup for the year 2064.

Environmentalists support BART and the MPCA likes CASPER. Catherine Neuschler is the MPCA’s state implementation plans coordinator. She told me that the fears of utilities continuing to emit high amounts of haze producing pollution are unfounded.

“We don’t think,” she said, “power plants are simply going to buy their way out of emissions reductions.”

Neuschler believes utilities will opt for technological fixes rather than rely on purchasing allowances.

Environmentalists, on the other hand, find that using the CASPER rules, as opposed to BART, would allow the Sherco plant to emit at a level 300 percent higher than if the BART rules were used.

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Christine Geopfert is Upper Midwest Program Manager for the national Parks Conservation Association in St. Paul.  She told me: “Under CASPER, the Sherco plant, whose emissions really affect our northern parks, wouldn’t have to reduce emissions at all.”  She says she is also puzzled why the MPCA and the EPA would build their entire emissions-reduction plan on a law that is stuck in the courts, and may not make it out of the courts intact.

The coalition of environmental groups is urging the MPCA board to reject the application of a law it says will not clean up the Voyageurs, BWCA and Isle Royale as Congress intended. The coalition is comprised of the National Parks Conservation Association, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, Earth Justice, the Sierra Club, Voyageurs National Park Association and the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA).

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MCEA’s legal director, Kevin Reuther, told me: “Congress said we want to protect these national treasures. At one time there was absolutely no visibility impairment there. Congress has given us until 2064 to get them back to where they originally were.”

The bottom line, says Reuther, is that the “flight path the MPCA has us on will not get us there.”

Paul Danicic is the head of the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness.   Danicic said: “The Hennepin Country Court ruled last year that the scenic views and vistas in the BWCA are ‘rare, unique, endangered and of great historical value.’ But this goes far beyond beauty. The bad air is harmful to human health and wildlife.”

Arguments at the end of March

The EPA will hear the environmentalists’ arguments at the end of March. It has already made its position clear that CASPER should be the guiding rule. However, the EPA has signaled that that rule does not effectively address the pollution from the taconite plants. The MPCA has adopted and follows the lead of the federal EPA and is vigorously defending its position.

On its face there does seem to be a problem. The rule supported by the EPA and MPCA is hung up in the courts and may or may not survive. At present, it is unenforceable. That rule makes emissions reductions by electric generating plants seem voluntary. BART, supported by the environmental groups, would mandate emissions reductions. The rule favored by the federal and state governments doesn’t regulate emissions from the taconite plants on the range which, according to the MPCA’s own findings, are heavy contributors to the haze problem. BART would require taconite plants to reduce emissions.

If the MPCA and EPA do not alter their approach, this debate will end up in a lawsuit. While the case is being decided, emissions will be allowed to increase, as electric generating units are permitted to by allowances for increased emissions, and the taconite industry emissions will be left untouched.

While it may take a year or two to figure out the best course to save the wilderness and parks from pollution, it seems like a blink of an eye when compared to the 54 years Congress has given the state to clean the air over one of the most revered parts of the planet. They may figure it out by 2064. It is sad that it has come to this. It is even sadder that most of us will never see that day.

Editor’s note: Don Shelby is a board member of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, an organization discussed in this article. He has not taken part in any board discussions regarding the regulations outlined in this article. Still, that affiliation should have been noted directly in this story, but because of an editing error, it was omitted.  His MCEA affiliation is included in his professional biography, which is featured on his author page and often accompanies his articles. We regret its omission with this story.