Former EPA director talks at U about pollution changes

Jason Juno

Minnesota is one of the few states where pollution from coal-burning power plants has increased, a former Environmental Protection Agency regulatory head said Wednesday at the University.

Eric Schaeffer, who spoke at Amundson Hall on Wednesday, resigned in 2002 as the EPA’s director of regulatory enforcement after five years because he was frustrated with the Bush administration for taking away the EPA’s power to enforce, he said.

He said 75 percent of Minnesota’s power comes from coal.

Schaefer said coal plants that opened before the 1977 Clean Air Act did not have to be up to new pollution standards unless they changed in some way that would produce new pollution.

Approximately 20 years later, some companies started to remodel without heeding the Clean Air Act regulations, and the EPA began enforcing and negotiating with companies to make the necessary corrections, Schaeffer said.

He said the Bush administration then decided to allow modifications without pollution checks for projects involving less than 20 percent of the total plant.

Schaeffer said hardly any projects approach that number, and this allows companies to disregard the consequences of polluting.

As a result, Schaeffer became frustrated that the EPA had no power of enforcement and he resigned.

Environmental groups and 15 states have challenged the 20 percent policy after he left, he said. The new law has been suspended, but the old law is not enforced, except in a few cases that were far along, he said.

Dan Nelson, a member of Campus Republicans, said he believes the Bush administration is looking at another side of the energy debate. He said there is an energy shortage in the country and people have to weigh the benefits of power against the benefits of new environmental controls.

Schaeffer said he recommends a few things to help reduce coal emissions.

Any renewable energy is helpful, he said. Wind in Minnesota amounts to approximately 800 megawatts, he said, which would be one large coal plant.

Schaeffer said he said the reasons for cleaner burning include climate change and public health. The EPA estimates that there are 300 premature deaths in Minnesota per year because of fine-particle pollutants, he said.

Schaeffer said it would cost $500 per ton of sulfur dioxide to clean up. The cost to public health is $9,000 per ton. He said Minnesota produces 110,000 tons of the gas per year.

Sulfur dioxide also causes acid rain, he said.

Local industry is involved in cleaning the air.

Paul Adelmann, a spokesman for Xcel Energy, said the company asked the State Legislature if Xcel Energy could do anything beyond what the law requires, and then get the money back.

Adelmann said three plants powered by coal – Riverside in northeast Minneapolis, High Bridge in St. Paul and one in Stillwater, Minn., are all part of a $1 billion plan.

Riverside and High Bridge will be converted to natural gas and the one in Stillwater will get the newest pollution-control technologies, Adelmann said.

He said there will be enough new energy to power 300,000 additional houses. Also, the three combined will cut sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide – a component of ozone pollution – emissions by more than 90 percent, carbon dioxide by 21 percent and mercury emission by 81 percent over levels seen now. Mercury is the culprit for fishing advisories in Minnesota lakes, said Michelle Rosier, the Sierra Club’s clean air organizer.

Rosier said the environmental groups and other citizens worked with Xcel Energy, but she said Xcel Energy’s original plan was to convert one plant. She said that after pressuring Xcel Energy, the power company went to the State Legislature with the new plan. They then worked together to get it done, Rosier said.