Lazy, Hazy Days of Summer

     You wouldn’t expect to find haze or pollution in the air above the Boundary Waters yet sometimes it’s there.  Not from the campfires within the BWCA but from pollution created by power plants, paper mills and mining operations in nearby Minnesota Counties.  In an effort to reduce the hazy days of Summer in the BWCA the Enviromental Protection Agency has ordered Minnesota to clean up the air.

Minnesota working to reduce haze over Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Voyageurs park

Agency looks to power plants and mining to cut pollution

Think of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and haze is one of the last things that should come to mind.

The 1.1 million-acre wilderness along the Minnesota-Ontario border is prized for its many lakes, islands and rock outcroppings, with clean air an assumed part of the allure.

But more often than many realize, tiny particles build up in the air across the region, cutting the maximum visibility in the BWCA Wilderness and nearby Voyageurs National Park by almost 75 percent. On the best days, visibility averages 130 miles, but on the haziest ones, only 33 miles.

Following a directive from Congress, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has ordered Minnesota to come up with a long-range approach to reduce haze there. It’s part of a larger effort to improve visibility in 156 Class I areas — national wildernesses and parks such as the BWCA Wilderness, and Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Shenandoah national parks.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has spent almost a decade developing a draft plan — a first step to eliminating man-made contributions to the problem by 2064.

"It’s been a long time,” said Catherine Neuschler, the MPCA’s regional haze coordinator. "Trying to figure what visibility is and what it’s projected to be is very complicated.”

The agency has set an initial goal of cutting sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides emissions from large northeastern power plants and taconite operations by 30 percent by 2018. Statewide

power plants that already haven’t done so would have to install better pollution-control equipment, and taconite mines would have to improve combustion operations and look for better emissions-control equipment.

Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides are gases that react with other chemicals to form the tiny particles that contribute to the haze. Today’s cars and trucks are another source of nitrogen oxides.

In time, as better technologies are developed, other approaches to reduce the haze problem will emerge, Neuschler said.

Not surprisingly, the plan is generating interest, with environmental groups complaining it doesn’t go far enough. Industry, meanwhile, emphasizes it’s just a part of a much bigger and more complicated solution.

A Sept. 3 deadline for comments is approaching, with many yet to be submitted. Afterward, the agency could make adjustments before submitting the plan, ideally later this year, to the EPA.

Since 70 percent of northern Minnesota’s haze-related pollution comes from states such as Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri and North Dakota, they are being asked to help by cutting their pollution. Minnesota, in turn, is being asked to take steps to lessen problems in Michigan’s Isle Royale National Park.

Of the haze generated in Minnesota, the MPCA said half comes from the six counties nearest to the BWCA Wilderness and Voyageurs park. Of that share, slightly more than half comes from power plants and slightly less than half from taconite operations. Paper mills and other sources also contribute.

"That’s why we set up the plan to drive reductions from that six-county area,” Neuschler said.

In a joint letter, the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, Voyageurs National Park Association, and the National Park Conservation Association contend more should be done. MCEA also says the state should prohibit new industrial sources of haze if their emissions worsen the problem.

"We know the causes are primarily electrical generating plants and taconite plants,” MCEA lawyer Mary Marrow said. "The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is not requiring these industrial sources to install the best available technology under the agency’s proposed plan.”

Neuschler characterized that criticism as "a difference of opinion.”

Craig Pagel, director of the Iron Mining Association of Minnesota, a trade group representing six taconite mines and other vendors, emphasized that better technology often doesn’t exist to make taconite operations work more efficiently.

Moreover, he stressed the industry represents only a piece of the problem. If the iron-ore industry is singled out, he said it could absorb higher costs without achieving the desired environmental benefit.

"It has to be a balanced approach,” he said.

Dennis Lien can be reached at 651-228-5588.