EPA’s Delayed Mercury Limits for Taconite Plants Fall Short

The rule doesn’t reduce taconite facilities’ dangerous mercury emissions enough


Alejandro Davila, adavila@earthjustice.org, (760)-3518

Today, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) signed a long-delayed final rule to control mercury and other toxic emissions from taconite iron ore processing plants. The rule, due more than 23 years ago, will reduce the plants’ emissions by less than one-third. Analysis by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency shows these cuts are not enough to make the state’s fish safe to eat again. Save Lake Superior Association and Save Our Sky Blue Waters, which have worked for decades to protect and clean up the waters of Northern Minnesota, including Lake Superior, called for EPA to strengthen the rule. 

More than 20 years ago, Save Lake Superior Association took the EPA to court because the agency refused to control mercury emissions from taconite plants. EPA admitted its failure to control this toxic pollutant violated the Clean Air Act and, in 2004, committed to “act with all due speed” to fix the problem. Instead, EPA did nothing for the next 20 years and let uncontrolled mercury pollution from taconite plants accumulate in Minnesota’s waters and contaminate the fish so much that, for children and women of childbearing age, it is now unsafe to eat more than once a month.  

“EPA allowed mercury pollution from taconite plants to pile up, completely uncontrolled, for more than 20 years,” said James Pew of Earthjustice, representing the groups in litigation. “To fix the damage it has caused, EPA now needs to require taconite plants to reduce their mercury emission as much as possible, not issue a weak rule that will allow their contamination of Minnesota’s fish and waters to continue for twenty years more.”     

Analysis by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency shows that taconite plants need to reduce their mercury emissions by approximately 85%. It also showed that the two companies that own all the taconite plants in the U.S., Cleveland Cliffs and U.S. Steel, can achieve this reduction. Both companies reported combined revenues above $40 billion last year.  

“This rule was our best opportunity to clean up the mercury pollution in Minnesota’s waters and make the fish safe to eat again,” said Lori Andresen, Save Lake Superior Association’s President. “Letting the taconite plants get away with minimal reductions squanders this opportunity. EPA needs to do better.”

Seven taconite plants are operating in the U.S. and six of them are in Minnesota. Taconite plants account for almost half of all the mercury emissions in Minnesota. The mercury they emit falls back to earth, where it contaminates lakes and streams and builds up in the tissue of fish. Pregnant women and mothers who eat freshly caught fish then accumulate mercury in their bodies and pass it on to their babies. Babies and children exposed to even small amounts of mercury can suffer permanent damage to their brains and nervous systems. More than 10 percent of the children born on the North Shore of Lake Superior already have elevated mercury levels in their bodies because of their mothers’ exposure to mercury in fish.  

EPA issued today’s rule only after being compelled to do so by multiple suits in federal court brought by Save Lake Superior Association, Save Our Sky Blue Waters, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and the states of Minnesota and Michigan.  

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