Adopted February 11, 1999
Mercury pollution puts Minnesota’s waters, public health, and recreation experiences needlessly at risk. Mercury is a toxic metal that causes neurological damage in people and may affect survival success of fish and wildlife. Several populations are especially vulnerable to mercury poisoning, including fetuses and children up to age seven, women of childbearing age, anglers, subsistence fishers, people who eat large amounts of commercial fish or seafood, Native Americans, Southeast Asian and Hmong populations, and migrant workers who have a cultural tradition of subsistence fishing or who, because of poverty, must rely on fishing for food.
Mercury released into the air and water ultimately becomes concentrated in the flesh of fish, causing over 800 lakes, streams, and rivers in Minnesota to be listed on the Minnesota Department of Health’s fish consumption advisory list. Large, predatory freshwater fish at the top of the food chain, especially walleye, northern pike, and trout, have some of the highest average concentrations of mercury. Thus, mercury pollution threatens the vital tourism and recreational fishing sectors of our economy. Mercury pollution also causes deterioration in ecosystems, and is particularly damaging to eagles, loons, otters, and other animals at the top of food chains.
The electric utility industry is the largest emitter of mercury and the problem is growing
Mercury from coal-fired power plants contaminates the fish that Minnesotans love to catch and eat. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency projects that mercury emissions from electric utilities will increase from an estimated 1,526 pounds in 1990 to an estimated 1,735 pounds in 2005, a 14 percent increase. Several power plants account for enormous shares of these emissions. The Sherco facility, for instance, reported emissions of 725 pounds of mercury in 1997, and Minnesota Power’s Clay Boswell plant emitted 318 pounds of mercury in 1997. Because utility coal use is projected to rise while some other mercury-emitting sectors have been required to reduce mercury releases, the share of the state’s emissions arising from coal-fired utilities is increasing rapidly. By 2005, approximately 42 percent of Minnesota mercury emissions will originate from power plants.
Minnesota’s goal must be zero discharge of mercury from anthropogenic sources
A goal of zero discharge of mercury from anthropogenic sources must be met in order to protect the health and welfare of all Minnesotans, especially the most vulnerable populations. Our concerns for people and ecosystems compel us to commit to a plan designed to result in zero discharge of mercury. Voluntary measures alone may not eliminate mercury emissions. Mandated reductions may be necessary.
We have a strong preference for reducing emissions through pollution prevention. Controlling mercury emissions using technological devices will only spread the pollutant to other parts of the environment. Instead, we need to reduce our reliance on mercury containing fuels. Mercury emissions from burning coal must be addressed specifically, preferably through:
- expanding renewable energy and energy efficiency programs
- reducing mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants
- requiring old coal plants to comply with the emissions standards met by new coal plants, since reducing emissions of regulated pollutants often results in the co benefit of reducing mercury emissions
- right-to-know requirements to provide customers with information about the air emissions of mercury produced in providing electricity
- no single sector should be allowed to avoid taking steps to reduce mercury emissions
- all affected communities must have a strong voice in designing the laws, regulations, and programs through which the state will pursue the virtual elimination goal
- environmental improvements will not be detected immediately, but this should not discourage efforts to make incremental progress