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Pioneer Editorial: Swift action for mercury reduction bill

It took only a week, but the Minnesota Legislature completed efforts Thursday which could result in the most meaningful measure to surface from the Legislature in years.

On Thursday, with a 66-0 vote, the Senate sent to Gov. Tim Pawlenty a bill setting standards to reduce mercury emissions, joining the House which passed its bill unanimously on Monday. Among its provisions, the measure requires the state's largest coal-fired power plants to cut mercury emissions by 90 percent by 2015 -- exceeding the federal government's requirement of a 70 percent reduction by 2018.

"This legislation is likely the most aggressive mercury reduction initiative in the country," Pawlenty said Thursday. "Our lakes, our environment, and our health will benefit immeasurably. I am proud of the work of our administration and all of the stakeholders in getting this legislation passed and look forward to signing it into law."

The Republican governor was instrumental in gaining consensus on the issue, which he announced late last week. The agreement reached across both sides of the political aisle, as well as drawing support from environmental organizations, business customers and electric utilities -- from the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce to the Sierra Club.

With power generation the single-largest contributor of mercury to the Minnesota environment, the measure will reduce mercury emissions by nearly 1,200 pounds a year -- cutting overall statewide emissions by a third. Among the affected plants will be Minnesota Power's Clay Boswell plant at Cohasset, which will install mercury controls at one unit by 2010 and a second unit by 2014. Included are provisions that mercury reduction plans be reviewed by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for technical feasibility and then by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to ensure that the plans do not impose excessive costs on ratepayers.

Mercury reduction measures will mean much to the Bemidji area, with most area lakes under fish advisories by the state Health Department which suggest consumption levels of walleye and northern pike because of mercury contamination.

"If you look at the DNR Web site, virtually every lake in our area has a mercury advisory," says Rep. Frank Moe, DFL-Bemidji. "This is a great first step to get rid of those advisories. We will have a day in Minnesota where we can catch our limit and not have to worry about whether the fish are safe to eat."

While the legislative process has at best been contentious the last few years, the swift passage of mercury reduction legislation shows that politics can be set aside when it comes to protecting Minnesota's fish, lakes, rivers and streams.