Clearer Skies Coming Soon to Northern Minnesota

Sherco power plant
Sherco power plant (Photo courtesy MN Pollution Control Agency)

Reductions in pollution from a coal power plant near St. Cloud, Minnesota are expected to improve visibility at national parks, wilderness areas, and communities across northern Minnesota. The emission cuts are the result of a legal settlement announced this week between Xcel Energy and environmental groups.

By the end of this year, Xcel will reduce sulfur dioxide emissions at its Sherco plant by approximately 10,000 tons per year. Further reductions are required by mid-2017.

“Under this agreement, Sherco will make meaningful smog reductions that will improve air quality and public health, but those reductions will not be enough to eliminate the plant’s impact on the region’s national parks and wilderness areas,” said Stephanie Kodish, director and counsel of NPCA’s Clean Air Program.

The National Park Service had studied air quality problems at Voyageurs National Park and announced in 2009 that emissions from the Sherco Plant were partly responsible for impairment. National Parks, as well as wilderness areas such as the Boundary Waters, are considered “Class I” areas, and the federal government does not allow any degradation of their air quality.

Several environmental and parks groups filed a lawsuit in 2012 to force the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce pollution from by the 35-year-old power plant, “the dirtiest in Minnesota” according to the plaintiffs. The groups included the National Parks Conservation Association, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, Voyageurs National Park Association, Fresh Energy and the Sierra Club.

In addition to the pollution causing hazy conditions, it is also thought to be harmful to human health. Sulfur dioxide in particular can worsen asthma.

“We have invested – and continue to invest – in clean air strategies that protect the environment, improve the electricity system and provide value to our customers,” Frank Prager, Xcel Energy’s vice president of policy and federal affairs said.

Xcel recently made $50 million in upgrades to scrubbers on two of the plant’s generating units, according to the Star Tribune. The company plans to modify a newer generator by 2017 to meet the overall goal of cutting in half sulfur dioxide emissions.

In celebrating the agreement, the environmental groups said more still needs to be done to reduce emissions, transition the state’s power supply to solar and wind, and reduce energy consumption.

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