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EPA pollution regulations for Minnesota taconite plants delayed

The federal government still is developing a final decision on new regulations for Minnesota taconite plants aimed at reducing air pollutants that cause haze.

The EPA was under a court-ordered decree to make a final recommendation by Nov. 10. But Minnesota Pollution Control Agency staff on Tuesday informed the PCA's citizen's board that the final Environmental Protection Agency rules now have been delayed until Dec. 10.

"I actually thought I was going to be able to tell you the end of the story here today. But I'm not because we are still waiting for the EPA to come out with their final proposal," David Thornton, assistant PCA commissioner, told the board.

But the delay could be good news for the taconite industry.

Thornton said PCA and taconite industry officials have been discussing changes with EPA officials that might make the federal rules workable for the plants and said he was "encouraged" that next month's rule will "recognize the concerns and limitations" the state and taconite industry have raised.

Thornton said industry officials have conceded that new taconite pellet burners at the plants would reduce the nitrogen oxide haze-causing pollution. But he said the companies are still concerned at the EPA's rapid timeline for installing the new equipment.

In August, the EPA proposed new air pollution regulations for Minnesota's taconite industry that go beyond what state regulators had called for. The new rules are intended to cut emissions that cause haze over pristine areas like Voyageurs National Park and which also can contribute to human health issues like asthma.

Taconite industry officials and supporters have asked for more time before new rules are adopted, arguing that the federal rules go too far, requiring specific technology at taconite processing plants that is unproven and expensive. Industry supporters say the new rules could threaten proposed expansions at Iron Range plants and could put existing plants at risk.

Earlier this year PCA regulators developed state rules saying the taconite plants are doing all they can to reduce haze pollution and didn't need to apply "best available retrofit technology" at this time. Federal regulators disagreed, saying trial runs at the Minntac plant in Mountain Iron of a low-nitrogen oxide burner showed good results at lowering emissions.

Air emissions in taconite mining and manufacturing generally come when the taconite pellets are baked at high temperature. The EPA is ordering the plants to change their furnace technology to low-nitrogen-oxide burners that produce higher temperatures to cut emissions. Many coal-fired power plants already have been required to make the similar upgrades.

Supporters of stronger emissions rules for taconite plants say that, in addition to impairing visibility, haze pollutants contribute to heart attacks, asthma attacks, chronic bronchitis and respiratory illness.