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Published April 12, 2013, 09:11 AM

Minnesota pulls out of research on St. Louis River mercury

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — An environmental group has requested a public hearing on the state of Minnesota's decision to withdraw from a research project on mercury pollution in the St. Louis River.

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — An environmental group has requested a public hearing on the state of Minnesota's decision to withdraw from a research project on mercury pollution in the St. Louis River.

The Star Tribune reported that the state's decision to pull out of the four-year, $1 million project stunned the Fond du Lac Band of Chippewa and federal regulators.

Mercury contamination has made much of the river's fish inedible for children and young women. One in 10 infants on the North Shore of Lake Superior have unsafe levels of mercury in their blood, and about 1 in 100 have levels high enough to harm neurological function, state health officials said.

Officials from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency said the state first needs more research on how mercury behaves in nature and why mercury levels in fish from the St. Louis River are significantly higher than elsewhere.

Others with a stake in cleaning up the river say sources of mercury are well-known: a combination of air emissions from power and taconite plants, and sulfate pollution. They say the federally funded research project would have provided some badly needed answers.

"The St. Louis River is (our) single most important fishing source," said Nancy Schuldt, water project coordinator for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, whose members rely on the river as a source of food. "We simply can't walk away from this."

This week Water Legacy, an environmental advocacy group, asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to hold a public meeting to discuss the project and the state's actions.

The St. Louis River is drainage for Minnesota's Iron Range, and serves as a primary incubator for aquatic life in western Lake Superior. After contamination by a century of mining, it's a primary focus of the federal Environmental Protection Agency and has received millions of dollars in clean-up funds.

The research project was funded by the EPA, with Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Fond du Lac joining as partners. It would have compiled environmental data already collected plus new data from the river and tributaries. And it would have included new research on how mercury behaves in the environment from research partially funded by the taconite industry and carried out by the Minnesota DNR.

That research is designed to address whether sulfate, a dissolved mineral from water treatment plants and iron ore pits, helps transform mercury into a form that winds up in predator fish like northerns and walleye.

The MPCA backed out of the research because it felt a computer modeling program being used to crunch data on the St. Louis River project was unreliable. Shannon Lotthammer, director of the agency's environmental analysis division, told the Star Tribune that it could lead to decisions "that won't solve the problem."

Alie Muneer, the Chicago EPA official leading the project, said the assessment would have been "scientifically defensible."

In a March letter to the EPA, Commissioner John Linc Stine of the PCA said Minnesota is putting together a research proposal that will build on the sulfate research the DNR is conducting to better understand the chemistry and that it will seek funding for it as it goes along.

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