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Protest delivers ‘bill’ to Minnesota Power for hidden pollution costs

Tom Thompson of Duluth (left), who holds a placard showing sulfur dioxide levels around the Taconite Harbor Energy Center, joins others at a news conference Wednesday morning in Canal Park to explain the costs to health and environment of the utility’s coal pollution. Speaking on the issue is Ann Miller, a volunteer with the Sierra Club. (Bob King /

A handful of Sierra Club activists delivered oversized “health bills” to Allete’s Minnesota Power offices in Duluth on Wednesday, symbolic charges for what the protesters claim are the uncounted health and environmental costs of fossil fuel pollution by the utility.

For close to 20 years, Minnesota Power and Xcel Energy in Minneapolis have not had to factor in updated costs reflecting the impact of the pollutants they produce, Sierra Club members charged during a news conference. But a spokeswoman for the utility said it has made major strides in diversifying its production methods to reduce its pollution output.

Amy Rutledge of Minnesota Power said that in 2005 the company was 95 percent coal-fueled, but that within the next decade will be one-third coal, one-third natural gas and one-third renewable energy.

“We think we have a very progressive, a very thoughtful plan,” Rutledge said. “We think we are moving at the right pace for our customers.”

The environmental organization cited a recent study done by an economist at the University of Minnesota, which concluded that fossil fuel pollution costs Minnesotans $2.1 billion in health and environmental impacts — 94 percent from coal pollution.

This year, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission agreed to study the impacts and determine how to update the cost values to reflect current science. Community members are seeking to ensure the hidden costs of coal pollution are included, such as emergency room visits, medical bills and missed school days.

In late March, the Sierra Club claimed Minnesota Power was responsible for more than 12,500 federal Clean Air Act violations at its Boswell, Taconite Harbor and Syl Laskin coal plants over the last five years, and that correlates with a new report from the Clean Air Task Force, an environmental reform group, that reports dangerous levels of sulfur dioxide pollution emitted by the Taconite Harbor plant. It estimated that these plants contribute to a combined 367 asthma attacks, 36 heart attacks and 23 premature deaths per year, with the elderly, children and people with respiratory and heart disease most at risk.

The organization called for a move away from coal toward cleaner alternative fuels such as wind power.

Minnesota Power serves 144,000 customers. They serve 11 large industrial customers, such as taconite mines and paper companies, which account for about two-thirds of their energy demand, according to the company.

Rutledge said the company has made “significant investments” to reduce emissions at its existing coal plants and installed pollution reduction equipment like scrubbers at its Boswell facility.

Rutledge declined to directly address the health statistics raised by the Sierra Club during its news conference.

“We don’t want to debate the Sierra Club’s work,” Rutledge said.