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Local view: Compromise needed to solve Minnesota’s EPA, mining dilemmas

On June 2 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced tough regulations that require Minnesota and other states to cut coal-fired plant carbon emissions 41 percent by 2030. The announcement came in the midst of a war on the Iron Range pitting environmental and tribal groups against new copper-nickel mining supporters and construction unions. The timing is fortunate as the need to convert or replace our coal-fired electrical power provides us with a unique opportunity to end this Range war.

Along with carbon and carbon dioxide emissions, burning coal releases huge amounts of mercury and sulfur. The EPA website states that mercury is a naturally occurring element found in air, water and soil and can be dispersed in various ways. Human-made sources account for 70 percent of all mercury deposition; the other 30 percent arrive from natural sources such as volcanoes and forest fires. Approximately half of all mercury emissions arrive from sources outside the U.S.

According to the EPA’s 2008 National Emissions Inventory, coal-fired electric power plants account for 48 percent of total human-made U.S. mercury emissions. Another 3 percent is attributed to gold mining. Ferrous and nonferrous mining, not listed as EPA major sources, are lumped together with dozens of “other sources.”

Tribal groups are concerned that high levels of sulfate in lakes and wetlands adversely affect wild rice. The EPA also reveals that coal-fired plants can release large amounts of sulfur to the atmosphere, where it’s oxidized to sulfate and eventually deposited in rain or snow. According to the U.S. Geological Survey rainwater calculator, more than 500 trillion gallons of contaminated rain falls into the 1.1 million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness every year. Minnesota’s Arrowhead region is even larger.

The best approach to significantly reduce sulfate and mercury pollution in our wilderness areas is not to shut down the mining industry but to upgrade our coal-fired power plants.

All of this would be expensive. However, we can use present and future mining taxes to pay for a substantial portion of the costs needed to upgrade our electric power plants. The 2012 Mining Tax Guide, published by the Minnesota Department of Revenue, illustrates how it can be done.

Taconite production taxes, ad valorem taxes and property taxes are distributed to regional cities and townships, school districts, counties, the Indian Affairs Council, and regional funds and associations. The Occupational Tax is distributed statewide, with 40 percent going to elementary and secondary education and 10 percent to the University of Minnesota. These distributions could be left untouched. The remaining 50 percent of the Occupational Tax and all other taconite mining taxes distributed to the state general fund, which amounted to about $36 million in 2011, could be reallocated, along with all future copper-nickel mining taxes to replace or upgrade state coal-fired power plants in order to achieve EPA carbon emissions regulations by 2030. This also would eliminate the largest sources of mercury and other harmful pollutants contaminating our wilderness areas.

New copper-nickel-PGM mining has 70 percent support in northern Minnesota and 50 percent statewide. Minnesota tribes have a right to protect wild rice harvests. All Minnesotans want fish that are safe to eat.

It seems a waste to fight over a mining industry that contributes less than 3 percent of the pollution in the U.S. when lawmakers can choose instead to use the taxes generated by that industry to upgrade coal-fired power plants that feed our need for electricity.

Compromise is the solution. By reallocating mining taxes from an area designated for mining and forestry, we can eliminate 48 percent of the mercury and other harmful pollutants contaminating our wilderness areas. We can help power companies meet new EPA carbon emission standards and avoid skyrocketing utility bills.

Best of all, we can end this Iron Range war.

Harlan Christensen is a PolyMet Mining shareholder, formerly of Duluth, who now lives in the Twin Cities area.

Read more Sunday

The U.S. this month launched its largest-ever effort to curb the pollution blamed for climate change. The EPA ordered carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants slashed by 30 percent from 2005 levels by the year 2030. While some are skeptical the new standard will do anything but increase costs and decimate economies, others fear the standards won’t be enough and may have come too late.

The conversation continues this weekend in the News Tribune in Sunday Opinion.