The Boswell Energy Center near Cohasset, Minnesota. (Photo © Steve Roberts, used with permission)

Sierra Club says Minnesota utility violating pollution rules

The Sierra Club is repeating a threat of a lawsuit against a northern Minnesota utility, alleging thousands of pollution violations at its coal-fired power plants.

Minnesota Power is the latest Midwest utility to face a legal threat from the Sierra Club over alleged soot or particulate violations under the Clean Air Act. The environmental group has filed similar complaints against St. Louis-based Ameren and Detroit’s DTE Energy.

A letter of intent delivered to Minnesota Power late last week says the company committed more than 12,000 air quality violations at three facilities between 2009 and 2013.

“We clearly dispute what they’re claiming,” said Minnesota Power spokesman Pat Mullen.

The formal notice gives the company 60 days to negotiate a resolution with the Sierra Club or else, it says, the group plans file a lawsuit. It follows a similar warning made by the Sierra Club last summer.

The Sierra Club is a member of RE-AMP, which also publishes Midwest Energy News.

Most of the alleged violations concern the company’s self-reported measurements for opacity, an indicator of soot and particulate levels based on how much light is able to pass through the emissions.

State and federal law, as well as the power plants’ permits, generally don’t allow opacity to exceed 20 percent except for one six-minute period per hour. There are also exceptions during periods of startup, shutdown and malfunction.

A violation is defined as any instance when opacity exceeds 20 percent for two or more six-minute periods in an hour, or any one six-minute period when it exceeds 60 percent.

The Sierra Club alleges this happened at Minnesota Power’s Boswell, Laskin, and Taconite Harbor power plants 10,356 times in the last five years, totaling more than 1,000 hours when they emitted darker emissions than allowed.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the power plants spewed out excessive soot during that time, however, Mullens countered. While opacity is an indicator of particulates, he said it’s not a certain measure and can be affected by other factors such as weather and moisture.

“This opacity issue that they’re raising is not a pollutant. It doesn’t measure pollution. It’s just a monitoring condition of how opaque the plume is that comes out of the stack,” Mullen said. “There’s a lot of factors to that.”

Mullen also said the 10,356 increments when one of the power plants’ seven plumes was darker than allowed was out of more than 3 million six-minute periods, meaning they were in full compliance 99.7 percent of the time.

Sierra Club campaign and organizing manager Michelle Rosier characterized the violations “egregious” and said they should call into question whether Minnesota Power can operate its plants within laws designed to protect public health.

Rosier said soot and particulate pollution can contribute to lung and heart disease, exacerbate asthma problems and has recently been linked to cancer by the World Health Organization.

“Minnesota Power should immediately bring its plants within clean air standards and announce plans for how it will eventually replace its coal plants with cleaner sources of energy,” Rosier said.

The Sierra Club’s letter also alleges more than 2,000 other violations related to misuse of pollution controls, including insufficient use of a chemical to remove mercury from emissions at the Taconite Harbor facility.

The company didn’t dispute the opacity data, which comes from its own monitoring systems installed at each of the facilities. The results are reported quarterly to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, which makes them publicly available.

The fact that opacity data is publicly accessible in many states is what’s helped make it a particularly active area for citizen group lawsuits under the Clean Air Act, according to Seth Jaffe, a Boston attorney who has represented power plant operators.

Jaffe said these type of cases are happening across the country because the data exists, and also because opacity is hard for power plants to control all of the time, which makes it easier to find potential violations compared to other pollutants.

“Part of it is the Sierra Club is looking to end coal. They have a litigation strategy that is intended to make life difficult for even what would be regarded as clean coal plants,” Jaffe said. “They want all coal plants shut, no matter how sophisticated their pollution control system is.”

There is no coordinated national Sierra Club effort to target opacity violations, Rosier said, although local chapters do look to one another for ideas and strategies. And there are coal plants that operate without opacity violations, Rosier said.

Minnesota Power has been under pressure from environmentalists to retire rather than retrofit its older coal plants. The company announced a goal last year of transitioning its generation portfolio to one-third coal, one-third natural gas, and one-third renewables.

Since 2005, Minnesota Power has spent more than $350 million at its coal-fired power plants to reduce emissions and improve efficiency. The state’s utility regulators approved a $430 million upgrade to its Boswell 4 unit last September that will dramatically cut mercury emissions.

Minnesota Power spokeswoman Amy Rutledge suggested that the Sierra Club is focusing on opacity violations because the utility’s recent improvements have left the group with nothing better to criticize.

“I think it’s interesting that we’re talking about opacity deviations, which is not a pollutant,” Rutledge said. “Perhaps it’s because Minnesota Power has made such significant investments in pollution control equipment throughout its fleet.”

5 thoughts on “Sierra Club says Minnesota utility violating pollution rules

  1. Retire coal! Minnesota Power would be a better financial steward of their money if they would invest in clean energy than to keep trying to make coal work. It is dirty – it will always be. It would be better to move into this century and put your earnings into more progressive and cleaner energy sources!
    I am not a member of the Sierra Club, but as a tax payer and mother of young children – I am grateful that the Sierra Club is watching out for us and cleaner air quality!!!

  2. Peg, what is the solution for retiring coal plants? Coal plants are base load plants that supply a majority of the power demanded throughout the day at relatively low cost. This is supplemented by renewables such as hydro, wind, and solar as well as natural gas plants. There is no storage medium (think batteries) that are able to, with today’s technology, store the required power to supply enough for the demand, which is the main problem with renewables. Your only other option for a base load plant is nuclear, which is actually the direction that we should be moving to along with supplementing it with more renewables. However now the over sensationalized fear of nuclear power is dictating legislation and public opinion, much like what the Sierra club is trying to do with coal. Bottom line is that we live in an age where our power demand is continuously increasing and we dont have the technology to produce that electrical power with completely renewable pollution free generation. Yes we should continue to improve our generation methods, but it is not feasible to shut down coal plants unless we build nuclear plants in their place at this time.
    This also is affected by how much we are willing to pay for power. We could switch to all natural gas but that would significantly increase costs and also put use at the mercy of natural gas prices, what happens when they sky rocket like propane did this past winter? Unless we want to live with no electricity, cleaner coal or nuclear are nessecary for now.

  3. Jon, you raise good points but also make a lot of incorrect assumptions here. For example, renewables don’t necessarily need storage if they can be dispatched across greater distances to load. And electricity demand is most assuredly not “continuously increasing.”
    Whether a power plant can be shut down depends on a lot of factors – some are critical for reliability, yes, but others are not. More than 150 coal units have shut down since 2010 and the grid is still functioning.

  4. Ken, good point on the renewable transmission. This is exactly what is happening with minnesota power and the transmission line they are building to Canada to get power from their vast hydroelectric potential. These types of projects take billions of dollars and over a decade to complete. As I said we need to expand our renewable supplement of our other power, but at this time its not possible to just shutdown coal and throw billions upon billions into the bulk electric grid, new transmission lines and new renewable energy sources to phase out coal immediately. Long term yes, immediate no. Even with transmission of renewables across say the county you still have issues with guaranteed generation. Many renewable sources are not controllable (if there is no wind you can’t produce power from wind obviously) So even with the transmission you still need storage of intermittent electric producers such as wind and solar to meet base load and peak load demands. For example if you get exceedingly high winds you may have to shutdown your wind generation in that area and be able to seemlessly pick up the load with other sources (spinning reserves). It may be a rare occurance, but its required of utilities to be able to do this.Not saying its impossible, but the variation with renewables makes it harder.
    Electric demand is assuredly continuously increasing. Some numbers are suggesting a 35% increase in demand 2030.
    Yes coal plants have shut down, but the more that shut down the harder it is to shut down even more.
    Everyone wants cheap power and they want it renewable and they want it now. It is going to take time and a lot of money to make it work. It is possible but not in the time that people like the sierra club expects

  5. I don’t think anyone’s saying we should phase out coal immediately.