EPA Loophole Would Compromise Air Quality

 by Caroline Elling

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Whether you’ve spent time in Minnesota’s pristine wilderness areas like the Boundary Waters, Isle Royale, and Voyagers National Park or not, it’s clear that these destinations are incredibly valuable to wildlife, recreation, health, and future generations. Unfortunately, there is a hidden threat to these areas: air pollution. Pollutants are wafting from dirty power plants like Sherco, an Xcel-operated plant in Becker, MN, over these natural areas and compromising their pristine status as well as compromising the health of Minnesotans.

Minnesota is considering taking advantage of an EPA loophole that could have dramatic effects on the air quality in the Boundary Water, Isle Royale, and Voyageurs and the air quality of the state in general. The loophole will allow states like Minnesota who are subject to the Cross State Air Pollution Rule to forego complying with the Clean Air Act’s protections for national parks and wilderness areas. The protections for air quality in these nationally significant areas are detailed in the EPA’s Regional Haze Rule, which requires that each individual polluting plant subject to the Rule utilize ‘Best Available Retrofit Technology’ for reducing emissions. The Cross State Air Pollution Rule, in contrast, takes a broad approach to reducing air pollution, requiring an overall reduction in pollution from the state as a whole rather than enforcing specific reductions at any individual power plants.  The Cross State Air Pollution Rule is not designed to protect these nationally significant parks and wilderness areas and Federal Land Managers have certified that only the plant-by-plant protections required by the Regional Haze Rule can ensure that air quality goals for these areas are met.  Thus, the loophole Minnesota proposes to take will allow some plants to sneak under the radar and continue to pollute in huge quantities rather than updating and retrofitting. This loophole will not only compromise Minnesota air; 150 other power plants across the country may also be exempted from cleaning up their emissions.

One such ‘under the radar’ plant is Sherco, an Xcel-operated power plant that is not only the largest, but also the dirtiest plant in the state. The lack of regulations for Sherco will have huge implications for Minnesota; the plant’s emissions are contributing to air pollution and haze over Minnesota’s most pristine wilderness areas: the Boundary Waters, Voyagers National Park, and Isle Royale National Park. Additionally, the emissions from this plant are compromising Minnesotans’ health and contributing to respiratory illness, heart attack, and, according to a study commissioned by the Clean Air Task Force, 1600 asthma attacks each year.

Xcel recently announced that they are considering investments in moderate pollution controls at Sherco; however, Sierra Club, National Parks Conservation Association and forest service are calling for best available pollution controls. Xcel’s Sherco coal boilers 1 and 2 emit between 9000-12000 tons of nitrogen oxide each year. With best available controls, those emissions would be reduced between 77 – 95%.

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Xcel cites costs as the excuse not to invest in the best available controls and that brings up a real question. Should Xcel continue to invest in dirty coal boilers at Sherco or replace both of the oldest boilers with renewable energy generation and energy efficiency? Our view is Xcel should move away from coal burning at Sherco 1 and 2 and invest in the clean energy future.

Click here to call on Xcel and the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to replace Sherco with clean energy.

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