Our view: Strategy needed to rid St. Louis River of mercury
The state Health Department advises against eating fish from the St. Louis River more often than once a week -- and no more often than once a month if you're pregnant or a small child. There's just too much mercury in the river and in its walleye...
The state Health Department advises against eating fish from the St. Louis River more often than once a week - and no more often than once a month if you’re pregnant or a small child. There’s just too much mercury in the river and in its walleyes, northern pike and other swimming creatures.
Despite decades of cleanup and tighter regulations on smokestack industries, emissions and pollution, the St. Louis remains toxic. And what’s worse is there’s no real solution out there around which we can rally and publicly fund. The situation is so dire organizers of an open forum today in Duluth consider it a victory that the government agencies working on the problem will be in the same room with each other and with the public.
“If we can’t eat the food that is available to us from nature in our own region, what does that say about how we are taking care of our own selves?” one of the forum’s organizers, Kristin Larsen of the Friends of the Cloquet Valley State Forest, asked during a meeting this week with members of the News Tribune editorial board.
“We’re trying to ramp up the pressure on the agencies to do something,” another organizer, Andrew Slade of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, said at the same meeting.
It’s not accurate to suggest the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and other agencies haven’t been doing anything to rid the river of mercury and other pollutants. Haven’t been doing enough? You could maybe make that argument. But millions of taxpayers’ dollars have been spent over many years on the St. Louis River alone to reverse the environmental damage done decades ago by pollution-spewing heavy industry and to restore the river’s health. The successes of those efforts, which continue today, have been cheered - and rightly so.
“We’ve made very significant progress in reducing mercury that comes from electrical generation,” Shannon Lotthammer, the environmental analysis and outcomes division director for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, said in an interview last week with the News Tribune Opinion page. Mercury from coal-fired power plants has gone from 1,800 pounds per year to below 1,000 pounds, she said. The number is expected to dip below 200 by 2016 thanks in part to more-stringent standards from the state and from the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
“Overall, mercury is one of the most (persistent toxins) that we address in the state of Minnesota,” MPCA Commissioner John Stine told the Opinion page. “It is to surface water and fish (what) lead is to housing and children. … We’re committed to reducing mercury in the St. Louis River. Some folks have doubted our commitment to that. They shouldn’t.”
Despite the commitment and despite the progress, the fish-consumption advisories remain. In addition, a study released in February 2012 by the Minnesota Department of Health showed that one out of every 10 babies born in the Lake Superior region of Minnesota had unsafe levels of toxic mercury in his or her bloodstream.
And more toxic mercury is being added all the time, much of it via the air from outside of Minnesota’s borders and much of it from the discharges of coal-fired power plants, taconite plants and other sources. Environmentalists fear proposed metals mining will contribute even more to the problem. They didn’t invite any mining companies to today’s forum, however, and they should have.
A solution will take all players to pull off. And a solution definitely demands to be found, something an elected leader can run with and win funding for, and something the public can rally around and support. Will today’s public forum produce that solution? Probably not. Not yet. But that’s no reason for environmental activists, governmental agencies, elected leaders and others not to get together like they’re planning to do. That’s no reason not to start figuring this out. Today’s gathering can be just the first - until the solution is found, funded and finished.