WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency will propose the first-ever limits on mercury emissions from the state’s taconite processing plants, a result of nearly 20 years of legal battles over the imposing such regulations.
Since 2004, environmental groups and others, including the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa other tribes in Minnesota have pressed the EPA to regulate mercury emissions from the processing plants, saying they account for half of mercury emissions produced by the state and result in dangerous levels of the heavy metal in soil and water.
For instance, the Fond du Lac tribe wrote the EPA in 2019 that mercury is a neurotoxin that is particularly harmful to fetuses and young children.
“It causes damage to the nervous and cardiovascular systems and interferes with normal brain development. It can also cause endocrine disruption and weakened immune systems. The exact amount of mercury that causes these types of damage is unknown,” the tribe wrote.
The Fond du Lac band also said mercury emissions make their way into the state’s waterways and fish. Occurring naturally in the soil, mercury is emitted into the air though smokestacks when taconite pellets are hardened, falls back to the ground and becomes toxic as methylmercury, a substance that works its way through the food chain.
“Tribal nations are particularly impacted due to the amount of fish consumed by Tribal people and to the cultural context that fishing has in many Tribal cultures,” the letter to the EPA said.
While the EPA regulates the chemicals and other heavy metals produced when taconite ore is converted into pellets that are about 60% iron, mercury was never regulated. In 2004, a court mandated the EPA issue regulations for mercury, but the agency failed to do so. So, the Fond du Lac band sued.
There are currently eight taconite iron ore processing plants in the United States – six facilities are located in Minnesota and two are located in Michigan.
The EPA’s new regulations propose reducing the 800 lbs. of mercury the taconite processors in Minnesota and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula produce each year by 462 lbs.
The EPA also plans to modify the existing emission standards for hydrochloric acid and hydrofluoric acid produced by the taconite processing plants. The proposed new regulations are expected to be published in the Federal Register in the next few days, with a period of public comment to follow before a final rule is adopted.
The Iron Mining Association of Minnesota, which represents the taconite industry in the state, said it was reviewing the proposed regulations and had no immediate comment.
James Pew, an attorney with Earthjustice who works on clean air issues, called the proposed new regulations “a step in the right direction.”
“I feel we should have been getting more, but the reduction will help,” said Pew, who represented the Fond du Lac band in its lawsuit.
Pew said mercury is in Minnesota’s waterways “and when you get to the fish people eat, it gets to real high concentrations.”
He said the EPA’s decision to finally regulate mercury emissions from taconite processing plants was based both on the pressure from lawsuits and the Biden administration’s more environmentally friendly attitude than that held by the Trump administration.
The state had set mercury reduction standards for Minnesota’s taconite plants. It set a goal nearly 15 years ago to cut mercury emissions by 72%.
Pew said emissions can by reduced through the use of “good particulate filters” and a process called activated carbon injection, whereby carbon particles are injected during the pellet-producing process to absorb mercury and other toxins.
“It’s doable,” Pew said. “But I’m sure the industry is going to complain about the expense.”
To help the industry comply with the state’s mercury reduction standards, the Walz administration has proposed a new, multi-million dollar grant program to help taconite processing plants pay for the technology needed to clean its emissions.