Don't Hold Your Breath

Who's responsible for bad air? Everyone and no one.

So what about the idling and empty buses hugging the curb on Fourth Street North? An anomaly, Gibbons says, and a violation for the driver if spotted by a supervisor. Chief operating officer Vince Pellegrin adds that enforcement has tightened with climbing fuel costs. An idling bus is a fuel-gobbling bus.

Pellegrin says proudly, too, that Metro Transit has pioneered the use of ultra-low-sulfur fuel in half of the 851-vehicle fleet--some two years ahead of pending federal regulations. In the future, he says, the buses will be an even cleaner choice.

Lee Eberly, Xcel's air quality manager, is also eager to point to the future. The Riverside Plant, a stately brick giant that towers above the Mississippi, will be converting from coal to natural gas by 2009. Until then, the facility uses two bag houses--think: vacuum cleaner filters--to suck up nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide before they leave the stacks. The third Riverside unit employs an electrostatic filter to do the same job.

Where there's smoke there's a garbage incineration facility: The Hennepin Energy Resource Company plant in mid-January
Nick Vlcek
Where there's smoke there's a garbage incineration facility: The Hennepin Energy Resource Company plant in mid-January

Xcel relies on the same technology, and operates at the same levels, when the MPCA issues an air pollution alert, Eberly says. "We have permits we have to comply with at all times."

And it turns out that Riverside wasn't operating at full tilt, anyway. Last week, units one and two were working at less than full capacity; unit three was shut down altogether for maintenance.

Air quality may have been foul last week, but Eberly's general impression about it could represent Metro Transit and the Hennepin Energy Resource Company, too. "In summary," he says of last week's alert, "Riverside has had very little or nothing to do with it per se."


If you're only a very little part of the problem during an air quality alert, apparently you needn't be part of the immediate solution. At least there are no state regulations demanding it. What there is instead is a voluntary public-private partnership called Clean Air Minnesota.

Clean Air Minnesota (CAM) comprises big businesses like 3M, Ford, and the Andersen Corporation; public entities like the City of Minneapolis and the Metropolitan Council; and nonprofits like the local chapters of the American Lung Association and the Isaak Walton League. The Chamber of Commerce is a member. So is the Pollution Control Agency. Not exactly kindred spirits, you might think.

Clean Air Minnesota's main reason for being is to keep the state in compliance with the federal Clean Air Act through voluntary conservation and emission-reduction programs. If a state is declared to be in "non-attainment" of federal standards, it must develop a rigorous response: mandatory emissions cuts from industry, for instance, or free fares for mass transit users during air alerts. CAM's website reproduces a state Chamber of Commerce claim that developing and implementing such a program would cost between $189 million and $266 million each year.

"What we want to do is to continue to meet the standards by voluntary and cooperative means," says Helgesen. "That's been the aim of Clean Air Minnesota and ours for some time now."

So by joining Clean Air Minnesota, what have the 58 member organizations volunteered to do during an air alert? Have they agreed to shut down facilities? Cut electrical demand? Pull delivery trucks off the highways?

No, no, and no. In the case of an air alert, the one and only thing that members agree to do by signing "partnership agreements" with Clean Air Minnesota is to disseminate an e-mail and educate their employees.

"During air quality alerts, we sometimes send out information to our partners making sure they pass on the alert to their employees," explains Colleen Coyne, outreach manager of Minnesota Environmental Initiative's CAM program. Specifically, the MPCA sends out some 2,000 e-mails. CAM members forward those on to a total of 110,000 souls. "Here in the office," Coyne continues, "we take certain actions. We try to decrease our energy use. We try to take the bus to avoid single-vehicle rides. And we try to model the things we want our partners to do."

The MPCA, in other words, is telling Xcel and the HERC the same thing it's telling the public: Don't light up the fireplace; stay off the snowmobile. "It may not sound like a heck of a lot, when one person decides to take the bus instead of driving," Helgesen says. "But when 10,000 people make that decision, it can have an effect."

The public had better hope so. Because even when particulate counts reach unsettling levels, the MPCA has no additional regulations for industry. It doesn't have plans to keep drivers off the road, either.

"Clean air is our job and our mission," Helgesen says. "But there's no way one agency can do everything by itself. If individuals and companies don't care about clean air, we have no way to fix that--unless people are willing to pull the plug on their electricity and give up their vehicles. We enforce state and federal regulations. But if we said we wanted to exceed those regulations, I think you would find that the vast majority of Minnesotans would be very upset. And the Legislature would tell us that we had overstepped our bounds."

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