A Scare in the Air

Minnesota has a pollution problem. But don't hold your breath waiting for a quick fix.

Last Thursday, an hour before the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency was to formally submit a long-awaited report on air pollution to the state Legislature, Karen Studders, the MPCA's commissioner, stepped to the center of Room 10 at the State Office Building. The MPCA, Studders told an assembled committee of 22 state lawmakers, is "on the cutting edge of a paradigm shift." As part of that shift, she explained, the agency plans to adopt "a more holistic approach." They will pursue fewer lawsuits and abandon the kind of strict rulemaking that once earned the MPCA a reputation as the government's green watchdog. Instead, the agency will institute a broad range of largely voluntary programs designed to encourage average citizens and industry to reduce pollution.

Neither the tone nor content of Studders's message was surprising. Conciliatory talk of "partnerships" with electric utilities and other major polluters, typically referred to by MPCA staffers as "stakeholders," has been standard fare at the agency since the mid-Nineties, when then-Gov. Arne Carlson appointed Chuck Williams, a mining-company executive, as MPCA chief. Like Williams, Studders came to the job from a regulated industry--in her case, as an environmental manager with Minnegasco. But while Studders has gotten generally high marks for her grasp of environmental science, activists and some legislators noted an irony to the timing of her pitch. After all, the MPCA was just about to turn over a comprehensive report drawing on an array of troubling studies about two major groups of unregulated pollutants: "air toxics," substances known or suspected to cause serious health problems such as cancer; and "fine particulates," tiny airborne particles less than one-tenth the diameter of a human hair that are produced by the combustion of coal, gasoline, and wood.

According to data compiled in the MPCA report, the economic and human costs associated with these unregulated pollutants are considerable. One cited study, completed last summer by the University of Minnesota's Center for Transportation Studies, estimated that air pollution from cars, trucks, and buses results in health-related costs of up to $1 billion a year in the Twin Cities alone. Another study, buried in the report's appendixes, posited that a 75 percent reduction in fine particulates from the state's 12 coal-fired power plants would save as many as 153 lives a year.

"The truth is, most folks don't have any depth of information about [air pollution] at all," says state Rep. Jean Wagenius, a veteran DFLer from Minneapolis who serves on the House Environment and Natural Resources Policy Committee. Wagenius sees "a strange dichotomy" in the MPCA's current emphasis on voluntary enforcement just as the scope of the state's air-quality problems is coming into sharper focus. She points out that Minnesota is currently meeting standards for controlling the six "criteria pollutants" (such as ozone and carbon monoxide) for which the federal government has established clear limits. And she wonders why the state doesn't apply the same sense of urgency to air toxics and fine particulates.

"We're not saying that we won't consider regulation, but we'd like to start with voluntary efforts and see where we get," explains Rebecca Helgesen, the MPCA's public-information officer and editor of the agency's most recent report. Because 43 percent of air toxics in Minnesota come from automobiles and trucks, Helgesen says, it makes sense for the MPCA to change course. But political considerations figure into the new approach as well. "Voluntary efforts are hard, and take longer than making new regulations," Helgesen allows. "But if we create more regulations, that has to be paid for. And our governor right now is concerned about increasing state budgets." Because of budget shortfalls, the MPCA expects to reduce its staff by up to nine percent, roughly 55 employees, in the next two years. (According to MPCA deputy director Lisa Thorvig, the agency recently contemplated a name change, but decided even that relatively modest undertaking would be too expensive, given current budget constraints.)

Critics of the MPCA agree that trying to get people to voluntarily reduce pollution may sometimes be effective (encouraging average citizens to cut back their energy consumption is a good first step). But they also contend the MPCA has been too swift to seek out the "middle ground" in recent years. "I think the MPCA is way ahead on monitoring, and good on the science, but way behind on regulation," says Paula Maccabee, coordinator of the Sierra Club's Minnesota Air Toxics Campaign. "In Minnesota, we still perceive ourselves as a leader, but there are many areas where other states are ahead of us." For instance, Maccabee points out, California has enacted regulatory standards for the emissions of air toxics and fine particulates. And the state of Texas, hardly an environmental leader, is closing what's referred to as the "dirty-coal loophole," through which older coal-fired power plants--which emit high levels of mercury--have slipped.

Bill Grant, executive director of the Midwest chapter of the Izaak Walton League, participated in a "stakeholder process" the MPCA established in 1997 to push electric utilities to better monitor and reduce their mercury emissions. After nearly three years at the table with industry representatives, fellow activists, and the MPCA, Grant was left frustrated by the absence of meaningful progress and less inclined to participate in the process again. "Polluters are treated as clients of the agency that need to be served in some manner," he complains. "When you're in a consensus-driven situation, the industry kind of controls the agenda and it's not in their interest to agree to really sweeping pollution reductions."

Grant Merritt, an attorney who served as the MPCA's commissioner from 1971 to 1975, agrees: "It's like we're back in the late Sixties, when if you wrote a letter to the PCA criticizing the pollution of Lake Superior by Reserve Mining, the PCA would just send the letter over to Reserve to answer. We need more direction from the top."

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