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MPCA praises power utilities for dramatic mercury emissions

Ninety percent of the atmospheric mercury that falls into Minnesota lakes and streams and makes fish unsafe to eat comes from outside of the state. There may not be much the state can do about that, but when it comes to the 10 percent that's in its control, Minnesota is leading the nation.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) recently sent letters to representatives of the state's power utility sector and to a variety of other public and private entities, thanking them for their help in achieving a significant environmental milestone.

When the state's power utilities embarked on state-ordered efforts to reduce mercury in the mid-1990s, Minnesota's coal-fired utility mercury emissions were about 1,850 pounds per year. Today they are down to about 870 pounds, and headed for less than 200 pounds by 2016. According to MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine, that's a remarkable achievement.

"Mercury emissions from this sector are now at less than half of where we started a little over a decade ago," Stine said. "And our power utilities are well ahead of their scheduled reductions laid out in the Minnesota Mercury Reductions Act of 2006.

"Our letter was an acknowledgment of the great job they've done in dealing with mercury emissions. Getting to this point required bold thinking and innovative leadership on their part. One measure of their success is that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency now looks to Minnesota as a model for how other states can reduce their own emissions of mercury from power utilities," Stine said.

Mercury is problematic because it is released into the air from sources in Minnesota around the world and then falls onto our land and surface waters. Mercury is a neurotoxin that converts to methylmercury in water, which accumulates in fish, resulting in fish consumption advisories in Minnesota.

Responding to the MPCA recognition, Xcel Energy Regional Vice President Laura McCarten said, "Achievements such as significant reductions in mercury and other air emissions result from strong partnerships -- and a clear vision of where we're headed -- among regulators, utilities, customers, environmental advocates, and other stakeholders. Minnesota's significant advances in energy and environmental policy occurred because we came together and creatively aligned our diverse interests with state policy goals."

Minnesota Power Vice President of Regulatory and Legislative Affairs Margaret Hodnik said, "From our nationally recognized research on mercury removal in the 1990s to achieving above 90 percent mercury reduction at our facilities, Minnesota Power has steadily furthered environmental stewardship on its system and in Minnesota. The tremendous progress we've made so far and additional planned mercury reductions on our fleet are made possible only with the support of many stakeholders."

Stine's letter was prompted by a recent MPCA analysis that showed utility-sector mercury emissions are down by more than half from a decade ago.

The reductions came about due to collaboration among public utilities, environmental organizations, legislators, and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. That work resulted in the landmark Mercury Emissions Reduction Act of 2006. But efforts started before that, when Xcel Energy completed the Metropolitan Emissions Reduction Project in 2009, converting its High Bridge and Riverside plants from coal to natural gas fuel. Mercury controls were upgraded at other Xcel plants. And Minnesota Power and Rochester Public Utilities made significant upgrades to their plants.

Power utilities are the largest source of mercury emissions in Minnesota and most other states, and burning coal is the largest source in that sector. While the utility sector is leading the way, other source categories, such as the mining and mercury-in-products sectors, have further to go.

"While we are thrilled with these mercury reductions, there's still plenty of work to be done," Stine said. "Reducing pollution at the source is just the first step in eliminating mercury emissions and impairments to Minnesota's surface waters and fisheries."

For more information on the mercury emissions and the state's efforts to reduce mercury, visit the MPCA webpage at