The Environmental Protection Agency proposed a rule last week that would finally limit mercury emissions from taconite iron ore processing plants, which for more than a century have poisoned Minnesota and Michigan waterways. This action is a result of advocacy by Native American Tribes, environmental groups, states, and Earthjustice clients.
Taconite plants emit mercury, dioxins, and other pollutants that EPA does not regulate. These highly toxic emissions enter the air and eventually pollute nearby lakes and streams, contaminating fish. Pregnant women and mothers who eat the contaminated fish accumulate mercury in their bodies and pass it on – in utero and through their breast milk – to their babies. Babies and children exposed to even small amounts of mercury can suffer permanent damage to their brains and nervous systems.
EPA’s proposal introduces first-ever emissions standards to control mercury and, by EPA’s estimation will reduce taconite plants’ mercury emissions by approximately 57%. However, it will still allow these plants to continue emitting hundreds of pounds of mercury each year and will leave taconite plants’ emissions of dioxins and other toxic air pollutants unchecked.
“EPA committed to limit taconite plants’ mercury emissions ‘with all due speed’ almost 20 years ago,” said Jim Pew, Earthjustice Director of Federal Clean Air Practice, D.C. “Today’s proposal reflects years of work by tribes, states, and environmental groups to make EPA honor this commitment. It is an important step in the right direction, but EPA needs to limit all the hazardous air pollutants that taconite plants emit by as much as possible.”
Minnesota and Michigan have statewide health advisories warning people that freshwater fish are contaminated with one or more of these pollutants and are unsafe to eat except in limited quantities. Minnesota’s fish consumption advisory, for example, cautions that many fish species should not be eaten more than once a month by children under 15 and women who could have children.
Taconite plants’ mercury emissions account for about half of all the mercury entering the environment in Minnesota. 2011 study found that one in 10 newborns born in the Lake Superior Basin, which includes the Fond du Lac Reservation, had unsafe levels of mercury in their bodies due to their mothers’ consumption of fish and shellfish while pregnant.
Mercury and dioxin contamination in Minnesota’s waters is a serious problem for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, for whom fishing is both an important source of food and a vital cultural resource. Because fishing is central to their culture, the Fond du Lac Band retained Treaty rights to fish in their tribal lands when the United States took these lands in the 19th century. Mercury and dioxin pollution from taconite plants and other sources devalue these rights by making the fish unsafe to eat.
In 2020, the Trump Administration’s EPA violated the Clean Air Act by refusing to set any limits for taconite plants’ emissions of mercury, dioxins, and other toxic pollutants. The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Save Lake Superior Association, Save Our Sky Blue Waters, and the states of Minnesota and Michigan sued to force EPA to set the missing limits and finally reduce the toxic contamination levels in Minnesota and Michigan waters.
Quotes from our clients:
“We welcome limits on taconite plants’ emissions of mercury, which are badly needed and long overdue,” said Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Chairman Kevin Dupuis. “EPA needs to go further, however, and set stronger limits for mercury as well as limits for dioxins and other persistent pollutants that are poisoning our fish and waterways.”
“It’s about time that northern Minnesota’s biggest air polluters face the facts,” said Save Our Sky Blue Waters Director Elanne Palcich. “Area residents should not have to breathe in the toxic heavy metals these companies emit. Polluters must bear the responsibility of reducing the hazardous emissions that have become their toxic legacy. The health of the people living here, now and in the future, is at stake.”