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What’s in Ramsey County’s Wind?

May 16, 2012 By Will Nissen, Fellow

Back in April, Ramsey County received an F for particulate matter (PM) pollution on the American Lung Association's (ALA) 2012 State of the Air report. Hennepin, Dakota and Scott Counties all received a C grade for PM pollution. As the apparent metro black sheep, what is Ramsey County doing wrong?

Well, it may not be that simple. One cause for the polluted air, says the Minnesota Lung Association’s Robert Moffitt, is simply a combination of weather patterns and geographic location. We’re always polluting somewhere, says Moffitt, and with Minnesota’s flat open spaces and high winds air pollution can blow in from some areas (even from outside the state) and settle in others. During the three-year span that data was gathered for the 2012 State of the Air report, this may be what happened to Ramsey County.

Zach Hansen, Manager at the Environmental Health Section of the St Paul-Ramsey County Department of Public Health, seconds this opinion, stating that air pollution is much more of a regional problem. Air pollution is such a tough issue because it doesn’t adhere to political or sometimes even natural boundaries, and depending on its source air pollution is regulated by a variety of different government agencies.

For example, point pollution sources such as factories and power plants are generally regulated by the state or federal governments, whereas area pollution sources such as backyard wood stoves and fires are regulated by cities. In fact, most counties in Minnesota often have very little regulatory power when it comes to land-use and pollution issues.

The ALA recommends the standard drive less, use less electricity and avoid outdoor fires and mowing the lawn on air quality alert days.

But Ramsey County residents already pride themselves on being environmentally conscious and have seen their grade slip from a B in 2009 to this year’s F, while the other metro counties have maintained a C or higher in the same time period. What's the deal then?

There are point-source polluters in Ramsey County that may be contributing to this problem as well. The Rock Tenn paper recycling plant off University and Cretin Avenues in St Paul lost its supply of steam in 2008 when the High Bridge Coal Plant near downtown converted to natural gas. A neighborhood group protested the plant's proposed garbage incinerators to compensate for the lost steam, so for the last three years it's been burning fuel oil #6 (not a pleasant substance).

District Energy, St Paul’s wood-fired combined heat and power plant downtown, burns unused wood waste, and though it has received numerous leadership awards for renewable energy and achieved some impressive cost and energy-saving accomplishments, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) fined the District $55,000 last year for “alleged violations of [its] air quality permit.”

Across the river and upwind in Hennepin County lies the Hennepin County Energy Recovery Center (HERC), which burns 1,000 tons of refuse-derived fuel (read: garbage) every day to generate electricity and heat for Minneapolis. Although waste wood and refuse-derived fuel are considered renewable energy sources in Minnesota, these sources may be contributing to particulate matter pollution in Ramsey County.

But David Thornton, Assistant Commissioner at the MPCA responsible for air quality issues, does not think we can point specifically to these point-source polluters as the main culprits for Ramsey County’s F grade. Thornton says it is a combination of “literally thousands of sources” that are contributing to this problem. And as to why Ramsey has experienced falling grades in recent years while other metro counties have maintained a C or better, Thornton says we just don’t know for sure. The location of air monitors (see monitor locations across the state here), weather inversions during winter months when PM pollution is particularly bad, or geographical characteristics may all have had an impact.

Regardless of the source, the implications for not fixing this problem are serious. The EPA is expected to lower its standards for PM pollution in the coming months, and the costs could be high if Ramsey County and the state of Minnesota do not comply. Back in 1999, the state faced a similar crisis when ozone levels were reaching dangerous highs. A Minnesota Chamber of Commerce report issued then estimated that it would cost between $189 and $266 million to bring just the Twin Cities down to EPA requirements if the state hit nonattainment status. That cost would have hit government agencies like the MPCA and extended to businesses and citizens forced to comply with tighter regulations.

As convoluted as this issue is, Ramsey County has made efforts to green its diesel vehicle fleet and make its buildings more energy efficient. The County (and the numerous other stakeholders involved) is also talking to and working with as many people as possible. Current work with neighboring counties and states, other government agencies, Twin Cities businesses, and citizens (being facilitated by the Environmental Initiative) is the only way Minnesota will stay ahead of deteriorating air quality.

Thanks for participating! Commenting on this conversation is now closed.


  • Bernice Vetsch says:

    May 22, 2012 at 10:31 am

    Would it help to make downtown St. Paul as “car free” as possible by beefing up the frequency of buses (and somehow making their emissions less heavy with particulates)?  Pawlenty cut Metro Transit’s budget year after year, which meant annual cutbacks in services and rises in fares.  It’s past time to end that foolish practice. 

    When the light rail line is done, that too may help reduce the pollution from automobiles as more daily riders leave their cars at home. 

    Neither of which helps prevent pollution blowing in from elsewhere, of course. 

  • Tom Welna says:

    May 22, 2012 at 11:14 am

    “But David Thornton, Assistant Commissioner at the MPCA responsible for air quality issues, does not think we can point specifically to these point-source polluters as the main culprits for Ramsey County’s F grade.”

    Well there’s no surprise there.  RockTenn, District Energy and the Minneapolis garbage burner are all regulated (or not) by the MPCA.  How could Mr. Thornton think anything else? To do so would be to admit what most citizens active around these issues already believe to be the case: The MPCA has become ineffective for protecting citizens from deadly pollution.

    Good piece.  I would like to see more on these issues.

  • Jake says:

    May 22, 2012 at 12:17 pm

    The Minnesota PCA reported in 2005 that 30% of the fine particle pollution in the 7-county metro area resulted from residential wood burning with restaurants that use wood to cook adding another 6% to the fine particle pollution.  Since then, backyard burning has increased at least 50% according to the Environmental Services Director in Minneapolis and more restaurants are using wood to cook or heat their patios.  One can only conclude, therefore, that fine particle pollution in 2012 from wood burning is much greater than 36%.  Could these fires be some of the “literally thousands of sources” to which Mr. Thornton was referring?  To ask people to avoid driving, having fires and mowing their lawn on Air Quality alert days seems to avoid the real problem which is that many of our actions on good air days (like building fires just for fun) create tomorrow’s bad air day.

  • Alan Muller says:

    May 30, 2012 at 6:05 pm

    I hope it is not the author’s intent to suggest that the lack of a garbage burner at Rock Tenn is making air quality worse.  Another garbage burner would have made the situation far worse. 

    I would think Rock Tenn is mostly burning natural gas, not heavy fuel oil.

    A finding of “non-attainment” would be a very GOOD thing, not a BAD thing, because it would force elected officials and the MPCA to actually take some steps to improve air quality.  As of now, as Tom Welna points out, the MPCA is not doing its job.

    Ramsey County presently ships much of its garbage to be burned by Xcel in Red Wing, polluting my backyard.  This needs to stop.