Minnesota’s electric utilities have cut mercury emissions by more than half in the last decade and are on track for more significant reductions during the next few years, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA).

MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine said in a statement that the utilities’ progress is “a remarkable achievement”—and it puts the companies “well ahead” of schedule to meet reduction goals laid out in the Minnesota Mercury Reductions Act of 2006. That legislation set a goal for six of the state’s primary plants to remove 90 percent of mercury from plant emissions; the utilities that run those plants are expected to reach the goal by 2016, two years ahead of schedule.

And there are more signs of progress statewide: When Minnesota’s power utilities were ordered by the state in the mid-1990s to begin reducing mercury, the state’s emissions totaled about 1,850 pounds per year, the MPCA said. That figure is now down to about 870 pounds—and it’s expected to drop to less than 200 pounds by 2016.

The reductions have been possible due to collaboration among utilities, environmental organizations, legislators, and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, the MPCA said. Major Minnesota utilities such as Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy and Duluth-based Minnesota Power have contributed through facility updates.

For example, Xcel converted its High Bridge and Riverside plants in Minnesota from coal to natural gas fuel and upgraded mercury controls at its other plants. Minnesota Power and Rochester Public Utilities have also made “significant upgrades,” the MPCA said.

“Achievements such as significant reductions in mercury and other air emissions result from strong partnerships—and a clear vision of where we’re headed—among regulators, utilities, customers, environmental advocates, and other stakeholders,” Xcel Energy Regional Vice President Laura McCarten said in a statement.

Mercury is a neurotoxin that accumulates in fish and can make them unsafe to eat. While Minnesota’s utilities have made great strides, much of the state’s mercury content is outside of its control: Today, about 90 percent of the mercury that makes its way into Minnesota lakes comes from outside of the state, according to the MPCA.

And according to a report by the Star Tribune, Minnesota has a long way to go, as electric utilities account for only about half of the mercury emitted in Minnesota.

The state’s taconite industry—which is reportedly Minnesota’s second-largest producer of mercury and contributes about 30 percent of total emissions—was exempt from Minnesota’s 2006 mercury-reduction law, in part because at the time there was no known technology for removing it from blast furnaces, the Minneapolis newspaper reported. The taconite industry has, however, begun experimenting with systems that will reduce the mercury produced by their processing plants. Meanwhile, about a quarter of the state’s mercury comes from consumer products like old thermostats and switches in older cars, according to the Star Tribune.

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