The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency weakened a statewide proposal to reduce smokestack mercury emissions after allowing industry officials to suggest revisions while canceling meetings with environmental groups.
Internal MPCA documents show an early MPCA draft plan called for specific mercury reduction targets in 2015 and later years, but the agency's officials dramatically rewrote the plan after meeting with utility, mining and other industry leaders at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce last October, eliminating the target dates and making other key changes.
Revisions of the plan and informal discussions between MPCA and industry leaders continued for seven weeks.
The MPCA also canceled four meetings with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and other environmental groups between last August and early December. At one point, an MPCA official told environmental groups that there was nothing to talk about.
The center made a request for MPCA documents and e-mails under the state public records law to find out what was going on and provided the documents to reporters.
"Minnesota has changed from being a leader to being in the pocket of industry," said Kris Sigford, water policy director for the St. Paul-based center. "It has written a plan designed to do nothing."
MPCA officials say affected companies' views are important and environmentalists could comment later.
"We were very cognizant about talking to industry ahead of talking to others," said Lisa Thorvig, the agency's assistant commissioner for water policy.
Mercury is emitted into the air before settling on land or waterways and accumulating in fish. Consumption of small amounts can damage the brain and nervous systems.
In Minnesota, fish contaminated by mercury have been found in more than 800 lakes and many rivers.
Federal law requires states to develop plans to cut back mercury emissions from in-state sources. Minnesota began working on a long-range plan more than a year ago. The plan to eventually reduce mercury emissions by 93 percent was made public in December. It is now open to public comments.
But in the December plan, no specific deadlines were included and failure to achieve goals would not necessarily trigger government action.
MPCA also took out paragraphs that said technology is now available to remove significant amounts of mercury from certain kinds of power plants and dropped language suggesting mercury emissions are expected to increase if mandatory controls aren't placed on sources like coal-fired power plants.
A top agency official said the changes were not made because of industry influence.
"The things that were said to us were treated like any other public comment," said Ann Seha, assistant commissioner for air policy.
The plan, which must be approved by federal officials, states the scientific basis and need for mercury reductions, she said.
Environmentalists say MPCA has not considered the cost of mercury pollution to public health and tourism.
"You'd think the agency would want to present some of that information and lay it out to the public so that we could compare the costs and look at the options," said Patience Caso, water policy coordinator for Clean Water Action, another group shut out of the MPCA early review process. "It just seems like they've already made some drastic changes after talking only to industry."
(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)