After years of delay, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) agreed to reassess whether coal burned at Minnesota’s largest power plant is reducing visi bility at Voyageurs, Isle Royale, and the Boundary Waters. The pollution created by the 37-year-old Xcel Energy Sherburne County Generating Station (Sherco), a coal-fired power plant, is unhealthy for people and is a contributor to haze over these public lands.
As a result of this agreement, the EPA will act on a 2009 certification by the National Park Service that Sherco is impairing national park visibility. The agency will propose a plan by February 27th, 2015 and finalize a plan by the end of August 2015. The EPA’s obligation is based on the Clean Air Act’s requirement to protect America’s greatest national parks and wilderness areas from air pollution.
The EPA’s commitment comes as the result of a lawsuit brought by a group of clean air advocates, including the National Parks Conservation Association, Voyageurs National Park Association, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, Sierra Club, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, and Fresh Energy.
While the EPA has agreed to take some action by the end of next February, the form of that action is uncertain. There are a few possible scenarios:
• EPA could require Sherco to be retrofitted with best available pollution controls.
• EPA could determine that the National Park Service was wrong and that Sherco does not impair the air quality in Voyageurs and Isle Royale National Parks, and require no additional controls. This is similar to the argument Xcel is making, even though both Xcel’s and the state’s own air pollution modeling both show that these controls still mean dirty air and impacted visibility at Voyageurs and Isle Royale for roughly a month each year; and at Boundary Waters almost two months of every year.
• EPA could agree to a weak haze plan put forward by Minnesota state regulators that does not require best available retrofit controls, even though technology that can remove 90% or more of haze-causing emissions is available and has been installed on over 200 similar coal plants.
The EPA’s agreement to take action on the Park Service’s 2009 certification is set forth in a Consent Decree that was lodged in a federal district court on June 24. The Consent Decree will not become final until the completion of a public comment period, then review and approval by the Court.
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