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WASHINGTON — After decades of advocacy by tribal nations, states and conservation groups, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is updating requirements for one of the largest sources of mercury pollution.

The changes will require taconite plants to lower their mercury emissions by at least 50 percent by the end of 2026. The proposed rules come after nearly 20 years of advocacy by conservation groups, Michigan and Minnesota, and various Tribes in the region.

“This is a step in the right direction,” said Earthjustice Attorney James Pew, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Fond Du Lac Band of Ojibwe, in an interview with Native News Online. “We now have limits of mercury emissions from taconite plants for the first time ever.” 

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Taconite is a low-grade iron ore that was once considered a waste rock. 

Current methods for processing taconite, where it is crushed into small marble-sized pieces. Then the taconite is mixed with water and ground in mills until it becomes a powder, and iron is separated from taconite via magnetism. The taconite is then transported to the steel mills to be melted down into steel.

According to Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), taconite iron ore processing plants are the largest source of mercury pollution in Minnesota. Minnesota is the largest iron ore and taconite producer in the United States. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) says mercury is a naturally occurring element that is toxic to people and animals, and it enters the environment through air emissions from smokestacks at power plants or heavy industry. Mercury then settles into the land and water and often accumulates in fish. 

Minnesota and Michigan have had statewide fish consumption advisories related to mercury contamination. Exposure to mercury is poisonous and can cause permanent brain damage, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. 

“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 in a statement to Native News Online

The new proposed rules in reducing mercury don’t go as far as they should, though, said Earthjustice attorney Pew.

 “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,” Pew said. “That’s good, but other industries have reduced their mercury emissions a lot more like coal power plants—by about 90%.” 

Taconite plants can do more, and they need to because they need to get the mercury out of the environment so that the waters can recover and fish consumption advisories can be taken down.”

The EPA sets toxic air standards for heavy industries such as chemical plants, power plants, and taconite plants. The emission standards are supposed to be reviewed and revised every eight years, according to the Clean Air Act. However, the first emissions standards for taconite plants came out in 2003 and haven’t been reviewed or revised since and did not set mercury limits. 

Earthjustice sued the EPA in 2017 because the EPA’s emissions standards for taconite plants were overdue to be reviewed and revised according to the Clear Air Act. As a result of failure to set standards, the Trump Administration violated the Clean Air Act, said Pew. 

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz has requested $17.6 million from the state’s general fund to create grants that will help reduce pollutants in air emissions or discharges to surface waters. If awarded, mining companies would be required to match grant funding. 

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About The Author
Author: Darren ThompsonEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Darren Thompson (Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe) is a staff reporter for Native News Online who is based in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. Thompson has reported on political unrest, tribal sovereignty, and Indigenous issues for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, Indian Country Today, Native News Online, Powwows.com and Unicorn Riot. He has contributed to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Voice of America on various Indigenous issues in international conversation. He has a bachelor’s degree in Criminology & Law Studies from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.