PCA demands EPA establish mercury standard

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

On Monday, September 28, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and its counterpart in Michigan filed a legal petition calling for the Environmental Protection Agency to finally establish a standard for mercury emissions in taconite processing. This standard would set limits on mercury air pollution from taconite iron ore processing plants. While mercury in Minnesota’s air and water comes from sources outside of the state, taconite processing is a major source, and one that we have the opportunity to get under control.

Mercury is an especially toxic element for people and animals. It causes harm to nerve tissue that can lead to lifelong organ problems, neuropsychiatric syndromes, skin diseases, and other conditions. It’s especially dangerous when inhaled or consumed during pregnancy, as it can become concentrated in the placenta and lead to birth defects in newborns. 

The Minnesota Department of Health found that one in ten of the newborns it tested in the area of the Lake Superior watershed (Minnesota’s North Shore) had elevated levels of mercury at birth. 

That jarring figure isn’t a random tragedy, but a consequence of inaction. The EPA has had a mandate from Congress to set a mercury emission standard for 40 years. A federal court ordered the EPA to get around to setting a limit in 2005, and it still has not done so. The joint action by Minnesota and Michigan to spur the agency to action is as urgent as it is long overdue.

We know that agency action doesn’t always get to the root of the problem. At times, EPA and MPCA rules fall short or go unenforced, as has sadly been the case with rules governing sulfate – a problem intricately tied with mercury – in Northern Minnesota.

Likewise, we know that this rule may impose costs on the taconite industry. But right now, the costs of mercury pollution are being paid by the people who live on the shores of Lake Superior – more than 600,000 in the United States and Canada. They’re being paid by the indigenous nations who have guaranteed treaty rights to fish – rights that mean little when the fish is toxic. The value of Minnesota’s isn’t solely measured in industry profits. What we need to value most highly is the health of our people and the ecosystems on which we depend.

We applaud the MPCA action and are hopeful that the petition will succeed. As with so many issues, we’ve waited far too long for action on mercury poisoning. It’s time for the EPA to step up.

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