MPCA asks for mercury reduction in town’s water

Brian Larsen

Since receiving notice in the summer of 2016, the city of Grand Marais has continued its talks with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) over the agency's request that the city keep its effluent below 1.3 nanograms per liter of mercury in its treated water.

Grand Marais is one of 12 communities whose treated water goes into Lake Superior. All of those communities have been asked by MPCA to meet the new mercury limit, but because each one’s treatment plant differs from the rest, there isn’t a “one size fits all” solution.

Currently, said city administrator Mike Roth, the city has hired AE25, an engineering company who is doing a facilities study “to evaluate what solutions we have.”

Every five years MPCA issues new waste water permits to cities, and the permit for Grand Marais has expired.

“We are working on a renewal with MPCA,” said Roth. “But it’s on hold until we get the results of the facility study. We aren’t just looking at the treatment facility, but our collection system as well. I don’t want anyone to think this is a simple maintenance issue.”

What troubles city officials is the exorbitant cost to remove a teeny amount of mercury per year from the effluent which is discharged into Lake Superior.

The minute amounts of mercury emitted from the Grand Marais wastewater treatment plant comes from what is termed “non-point sources,” said Grand Marais Water/Sewer Plant Manager Tom Nelson, which means it isn’t produced by the city, but comes from other places.

One of the biggest contributors to mercury pollution is coal fired power plants. Mercury is emitted into the air from the plants’ stacks, traveling far from where it originates, and falls into lakes, streams, and ponds. At that point bacteria changes mercury into methylmercury, a carcinogen which is passed to fish and then into the people that eat those fish.

A 2011 study by the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) showed that 10 percent of newborns tested in the North Shore – Arrowhead region had mercury above levels of concern in their blood. Too much mercury can cause lasting problems with understanding and learning.

That MDH study led to the FISH (fish are important to superior health) project, a collaboration among Sawtooth Mountain Clinic, Grand Portage Health Service, North Shore Health, Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Trust Lands, and MDH to reduce mercury exposure in women in the area and pilot an in-clinic screening for high mercury exposure. Nearly 500 women from Cook County, Grand Portage, and the surrounding area participated in the FISH Project.

Down the shore the City of Two Harbors has invested $4 million into screens that collect mercury. Other communities are looking to the state to provide loans to help meet the cost of upgrading their treatment plants to catch the mercury.

“I don’t want to count on the state to give us a loan for this project,” said Roth. “I’m not sure the state even has a program to give loans for this. Once the AE completes the study we can review the results with the MPCA and go from there. Until then, we don’t know what we will be required to do.”

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