National Parks Conservation Association, Groups Ask Minnesota and Federal Agencies to Reduce Air Pollution Over National Parks and Wilderness

Date:   September 4, 2009
Contact:   Andrea Keller Helsel, NPCA, 202.454.3332
Chuck Laszewski, Communications Director, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, 651.223.5969

National Parks Conservation Association, Groups Ask Minnesota and Federal Agencies to Reduce Air Pollution Over National Parks and Wilderness

Coal Power Plant Pollution Cited as Major Pollution Source Ruining Scenic Vistas

Washington, D.C. -The National Parks Conservation Association, the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA), Voyageurs National Park Association, and Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness have asked federal agencies to require the state of Minnesota to reduce haze over its national parks and wilderness areas by addressing emissions from one of the state’s most-polluting power plants. The groups have also asked Minnesota officials to change their haze reduction plan to require power plants and other pollution sources to update pollution controls and curb air emissions to better protect these public lands and area residents.

The groups petitioned the U.S. Department of Interior and the Department of Agriculture on Thursday to urge the state of Minnesota to require Xcel Energy’s Sherburne County Generating Plant (Sherco) in Becker, Minnesota, to install better pollution controls. The petition points out that pollution from Sherco obscures scenic views to and from Voyageurs and Isle Royale National Parks and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Sherco is the biggest polluter of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide in the state, according to a U.S. Environment Protection Agency database.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency released a draft Haze State Implementation Plan in July that would not sufficiently limit emissions from coal-fired power plants or taconite processing facilities, both of which are major sources of air pollution. On Thursday, the conservation groups also asked the agency to reconsider its plan and meaningfully limit regional air pollution to improve air quality in the region.

"The beautiful coastal scenery in Isle Royale and Voyageurs National Parks should not have to be viewed through a haze," said Lynn McClure, regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association’s Midwest office. "This is Minnesota’s long-awaited opportunity to improve air quality for its citizens and the visitors to the region’s national parks and wilderness areas."

Visible plumes of pollution from Sherco, as well as air models created by Xcel Energy, confirm that the plant’s pollution contributes to haze over Voyageurs and Isle Royale National Parks as well as the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area. These protected areas have been designated as Class I airsheds, which means they should have the cleanest air in the country. The Clean Air Act requires states to take steps to improve and protect air quality in Class I areas. The groups’ petition asks the Departments of Interior and Agriculture to certify that nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides and particulate pollution from Sherco is causing haze in these protected areas.

"On a good day, visibility in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is 130 miles," said Betsy Daub, Policy Director for Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. "But on a bad day, it can be as low as 33 miles. Dirty air is not what people expect when they come to a wilderness area. Clean air within this national treasure is protected by law, and we need our agencies to do their part to meaningfully reduce haze."

Sherco is a 2,255 megawatt coal-fired power plant located approximately 45 miles northwest of Minneapolis. Sherco is operated by Xcel Energy, through its subsidiary Northern States Power Company. On an annual basis, Sherco’s three generating units burn an average of nine million tons of coal, and, in that same span of time, discharge into the air of central Minnesota approximately 16,000 tons of nitrogen oxides, 25,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, and 16 million tons of carbon dioxide, according to EPA data.

Xcel Energy had proposed updating the plants’ pollution control technologies in 2007, but withdrew the proposal, and the plant has continued to operate with inadequate pollution control systems.

"Visibility impairment is a present and growing threat to Minnesota’s priceless natural resources," said MCEA lawyer Mary Marrow. "The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency must ensure that industrial sources contributing to haze install the most effective pollution controls possible and that these pristine areas are protected to the greatest extent possible. The Draft Haze State Implementation Plan fails to regulate emissions from Minnesota’s electric generating units and taconite facilities as required by federal law, leaving our wilderness areas increasingly susceptible to ongoing and increased degradation."

In addition to causing haze, nitrogen oxides contribute to ozone formation, which can cause lung irritation. When combined with moisture in the air, nitrogen oxides form nitric acid, which can corrode metal and contributes to acid rain. Sulfur dioxide and particulate matter also contribute to haze, and both pollutants can harm lung function, contribute to respiratory illness, asthma attacks, and cardiovascular disease. In addition, fine particulate matter pollution can damage lung airways and increase the risk of strokes and heart attacks.

"It is critical for Minnesota to consider the perspective of the agencies responsible for protecting our precious national treasures in order to determine how to control pollution for decades to come," said Stephanie Kodish, National Parks Conservation Association clean air counsel. "This petition points out that, amongst other things, that DOI has already identified that a major cause of haze at two precious national treasures in the Midwest is Xcel's Sherburne County coal plant. We are requesting that DOI officially verify this damage to ensure that emissions be meaningfully controlled by the state."




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