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PCA passes haze rules for northern parks

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency board approved new regulations to curb haze air pollution over northern Minnesota despite concerns from federal land managers and environmental groups that the rules don't go far enough.

The board's 7-1 vote, which followed testimony at their October meeting, is aimed at cleaning the elements of air pollution that cause haze, especially over pristine areas such as Voyageurs National Park, Isle Royale National Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness that receive special protections under federal Clean Air Act rules.

Haze, while noticeable from higher elevations and vistas, can often go unnoticed over Minnesota lakes and forests, mistaken for thin clouds, fog or humidity in the air. It's often caused when nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide meet in the atmosphere, forming a chemical reaction that creates particles.

The rules may eventually affect coal-burning power plants and taconite plants in Minnesota but also pulp and paper mills and other industry which may be required to install new haze-cutting pollution-control technology.

PCA officials say the new rules are the first step toward cleaner skies over northern Minnesota, cutting 30,000 tons of the haze-causing emissions annually. They also said that emerging regulations to cut carbon emissions at power plants and other factories will force industry to cut haze as well -- but that companies don't want to make changes until new carbon regulations are clear.

"They don't want to have to buy something and then rip it out when new regulations" are enacted to cut carbon emissions to help slow global warming, David Thornton, deputy PCA commissioner, told the board at its St. Paul meeting Monday.

Thornton told board members today in St. Paul that the new rules are an effort to "balance the need to reduce haze with regional economic realities."

The rules must be approved by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which has ordered that air over national parks and wild lands should be haze-free by 2064.

But critics say the state plan wouldn't clear the air for an additional 100 years.

In a rare public spat with their state counterparts, U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service officials have criticized the PCA rules as short of solving the problem. In October, Mike Ward, superintendent of Voyageurs National Park, and Jim Sanders, supervisor of the Superior National Forest, asked the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency board in St. Paul last month to toughen requirements on taconite and coal-burning power plants as the state develops new regulations to reduce haze.

Though he praised the MPCA's call for a 30 percent reduction in emissions in northeastern Minnesota by 2018, Sanders said in October the agency's haze plan fails to require taconite plants to measure how much pollution they emit. It also fails to set standards for how much they need to cut, he said.

Utility officials said any tougher regulations would raise electric rates for consumers, while officials at taconite plants say it could raise their production costs and cost jobs.

John Myers is a reporter at the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.