Star Tribune

Opinion

The MPCA decision on mercury, explained

Reduction is still the goal. The agency just has a different view of what’ll work.

Article by: John Linc Stine

Updated: April 22, 2013 - 10:26 AM

Counterpoint

When the lives and good health of our children, families and neighbors are at stake, research and solutions can never go fast enough. At the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, we share that impatience, and we share that urgency.

A debate is underway about our recent decision on how to reduce mercury levels in fish in the St. Louis River (“Minnesota drops out of St. Louis River mercury project,” April 11). Sources in the article implied that our decision to drop out of the current study somehow means “the end of the road” in the effort to reduce mercury.

We flatly reject that suggestion. To be clear, the MPCA and the state have been on the leading edge of mercury reduction strategies for nearly 20 years — this is a debate about tactics, not whether to take action.

Historically, there have been many skirmishes and debates over funding and tactics on how to solve complex scientific riddles, such as with polio or other contagious diseases. This debate over mercury in our environment is much the same. We all want to eliminate the human health impacts of mercury; the squabble is about how to best get there.

Minnesota is a national leader in addressing mercury in lakes and rivers. In 2009, the MPCA developed a first-of-its-kind plan to reduce the mercury emitted by smokestacks and discharge pipes by 93 percent by the year 2025.

Minnesota is currently ahead of the pace needed to meet that goal. In addition, the Minnesota Department of Health currently has three grants from the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to study the public health implications of exposure to mercury and other contaminants in the Lake Superior Basin.

Our decision about the St. Louis River mercury project focuses on the 10 percent of waters where the mercury problem will not be fully solved by the 93 percent reduction plan. In these waters, which include the St. Louis River, mercury is more readily available to the food chain. This results in higher amounts of mercury in the fish.

To further reduce mercury in the fish in these waters, we need to understand what makes the mercury more available and how to reverse that effect. Scientists know there are several factors that affect mercury availability, including temperature, water level, decaying plant and animal matter, and sulfate. However, there are many unknowns about how important each of these factors is and how they interact.

Answering those important questions will ensure that we follow the path that will solve the mercury problem. When the EPA and other partners insisted that the St. Louis River mercury project proceed based on a computer model that makes simple assumptions about mercury availability, MPCA scientists raised significant concerns. We are concerned that relying on the model assumptions would lead us in the wrong direction, costing time and money and ultimately not solving the problem.

To fix the mercury problem, we need to get the science right. MPCA scientists recommended to our partners and the EPA that we develop a better understanding of the causes of enhanced mercury availability in the St. Louis River and similar waters. This would improve our ability to target solutions and actually reduce mercury levels.

This isn’t the first time that MPCA scientists and the EPA or other scientists disagreed. Our willingness to stand by the best analytical methods speaks to the depth of scientific knowledge and confidence at both agencies. This is a good debate. We stand by the judgments of our world-renowned mercury scientists — knowing that our own alternate strategies to reduce mercury contamination in the environment are already moving ahead.

This is a key fork in the road. Our scientific opinion is that rather than taking the first route we see, we must pause to make sure the road we take is the best route to our destination — reducing mercury in the St. Louis River and elsewhere in the environment.

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John Linc Stine is commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

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