Minnesotans Looking for New Leader to Fight EPA Regional Haze Application

Published December 7, 2012

Republican Chip Cravaack pulled off one of the most shocking election stunners in 2010, narrowly defeating longtime Democratic Congressman Jim Oberstar in Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District, described by the Daily Kos as “one of the safest Democratic seats in Congress.” Cravaack quickly made his mark in Congress, leading a battle to restore balance between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state environmental protection agencies. Minnesotans now must look for a new leader to stand up for state environmental protection agencies, as former Congressman Rick Nolan rode President Barack Obama’s coattails in the November 2012 elections to reclaim the traditionally Democratic seat.

Curbing EPA Overreach

Cravaack’s signature accomplishment was the introduction of legislation aimed at curbing EPA’s controversial Regional Haze Rule. EPA is increasingly using the rule to force expensive restrictions on Midwestern power production, mining, and other activities, even in states and counties with exceptionally clean air.

Cravaack’s northeastern Minnesota district is home to taconite mining. Taconite is an iron-bearing sedimentary rock which has been mined extensively since World War II. Once considered a waste product, taconite is now processed to create taconite pellets that are used in the production of steel. After taconite is mined and processed in Minnesota’s Iron Range, the pellets are transported by rail and then by ship to ports in the Great Lakes region where they make their way to steel mills. Taconite pellets also are exported to China and Mexico.

In August 2012, EPA implemented tougher emissions rules that targeted six taconite plants in northeastern Minnesota. The agency’s action took place under its Regional Haze Rule which seeks to improve visibility at 156 national parks and wilderness areas around the country. Under the rule, EPA is supposed to coordinate its efforts with state environmental agencies. More recently, however, EPA has increasingly acted unilaterally. 

EPA Overrode State Plan

After years of study, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) developed its own plan for dealing with air quality on the Iron Range. However, EPA’s application of the Regional Haze Rule to Minnesota taconite mining largely superseded the Minnesota plan. EPA says the Minnesota plan is not stringent enough in requiring taconite plants to employ the best available retrofit technology (BART), which can add substantial costs to mining production. 

Fearful EPA’s move would severely harm the Iron Range’s economy, Cravaack in October introduced his “Promoting Nuanced Taconite Regulations Act.” The Act would give MPCA’s regional haze State Implementation Plan (SIP) primacy over EPA’s Regional Haze Rule application to taconite mines. It would also establish a 10-year moratorium on new, haze-related EPA taconite rules.

New Restrictions Unnecessary

“The Eighth District of Minnesota has some of the best air quality in the state. This ideologically driven overreach risks production slowdowns at some mines on the Iron Range,” Cravaack explained in a press statement. “I support maintaining and approving our air visibility, but this federal regulation ignores years of research by MPCA and neglects to account for the years it can take to plan, test, and perfect modifications to these highly specialized taconite furnaces.”

Will Nolan Step Forward?

Cravaack, however, was in a precarious position. As the first Republican to represent Minnesota’s 8th District since 1947, he was especially vulnerable in the 2012 elections. With the district now back in Democratic control, Minnesotans are looking for a new champion to stand up for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. 

“EPA’s regional office has substituted a crude, one-size-fits-all standard for the highly competent judgment of a state that is very experienced in taconite mining technology and has forgotten more about taconite mining than EPA will ever know,” said Luke Popovich, vice president for external communications at the National Mining Association. 

Popovich hopes Nolan will recognize the importance of state-crafted environmental protection and continue to pursue Cravaack’s proposed legislation. Nolan has yet to indicate whether he will stand by state environmental officials. Time is running short.

“The result of EPA imposing its view on the state may be very damaging to an industry that provides high-wage employment and very valuable products,” Popovich said.

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D., ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.