As Earth Week ends, Legislature mostly positive on environment

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

As we’ve covered extensively in our columns, last year’s session of the Minnesota Legislature was arguably the most productive in its history on environmental action. This year’s session, in an election year and a non-budget year, clearly won’t rival 2023.

But as Earth Week draws to a close, Minnesota’s environmental community has reason to celebrate much of the legislation moving forward in the last weeks of the session. On the other hand, we’re also working to make sure that key provisions aren’t further watered down or twisted to favor polluting industries over people and planet.

Waste and recycling

MEP strongly supports the Packaging Waste and Cost Reduction Act, which would require producers to pay the lifecycle costs of their packaging and move towards more recyclable, compostable, and reusable products and packaging in Minnesota. That legislation continues to move forward in the House and Senate. There is concern about large corporate interests working to water down the language of the bill to create exemptions and delay the drive to achieve 100% recyclable, reusable, or compostable packaging in Minnesota by 2032. MEP and our members will continue to work on this bill and advocate for a strong version.

We also supported the 100% E-waste Recycling bill, which would use a small fee on electronics sales to fund free electronic waste recycling across Minnesota. That bill ran into opposition due to its fee structure, but the House environment omnibus bill will help advance this issue by creating a task force to increase the recycling of critical materials in electronic waste.

A proposed ban on new lighting – such as fluorescent bulbs – that contains mercury is also continuing to advance in the Legislature.

Environmental justice

We are pleased to see that the House environmental omnibus bill includes several new policies to help address critical pollution threats in Minnesota’s communities, especially in environmental justice areas:

  • Identifying the top thirty emitting facilities in Minnesota and requiring enhanced testing to ensure that these facilities are in compliance with their permits.
  • Clarifying the enforcement authority to allow affected people to bring actions in court to enforce environmental laws and permits, providing a crucial backstop for state agency enforcement.
  • Promptly addressing threats to public health and the environment by establishing action steps for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) commissioner to use in the case of an environmental emergency.
  • Enhancing enforcement of environmental laws in environmental justice areas and expanding the use of mobile air pollution testing equipment.

Protecting our waters

Minnesota has laws in place that explicitly protect public waters, including the rivers and streams listed in the state’s public waters inventory. But this list hasn’t been updated in four decades, leaving hundreds of miles of waterways in potential legal limbo. The Minnesota Supreme Court has asked the Legislature to clarify which waters are public.

Fortunately, legislation to clarify that all waters that fit the statutory definition of public waters are indeed public waters, regardless of whether they’re on the outdated list, has made it into the House environmental omnibus bill. MEP will continue to strongly support it through the rest of the session.

Energy permitting reform

MEP appreciates the need for rapid growth in clean energy projects and the necessary infrastructure to connect them with consumers. We support the general intent behind the efforts in the House and Senate energy and climate bills (see article below) to reform permitting for wind, solar, storage, and related projects so that they can be brought online more quickly.

However, we’ve strongly expressed to Legislators that this effort should not create new problems at the same time that it solves others. We’ve seen efforts by legislators and industry groups to broaden permitting reform to include not just clean energy, but fossil fuel and nuclear plants, as well as other polluting projects that require more scrutiny. We will closely monitor the bill as it approaches its conference committee.

Residential density

MEP and many other environmental groups supported policy changes this session that would make it easier to build denser housing in urban areas, as residential density benefits the climate and helps prevent development of natural lands elsewhere. Unfortunately, most of those bills, like the “missing middle” legislation, were stopped in their tracks this session and will have to await future years for action.

One policy change is still in the mix, however: the effort to establish in law that residential density is not considered environmentally harmful under the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act, or MERA. MEP and allies have supported compromise language on that issue this session that would avoid broad carve-outs to MERA while still giving cities like Minneapolis an easier time establishing comprehensive plans – like the 2040 plan – that emphasize greater density.

While the compromise language was heard and approved in several committees, we are now concerned that the final language in the State and Local Government omnibus bills could create a carve-out, exempting city comprehensive plans from MERA entirely. MEP successfully opposed that broad exemption during last year’s session, and we are doing so again. We hope to see the Legislature return to the compromise language that environmental groups have broadly supported.

The next steps

The last few weeks of session are usually a sprint for both legislators and advocates, and this year looks to be no different, even given recent events in the Senate that could affect the DFL-held majority.

MEP and our allies will continue working hard to ensure the best possible outcomes for our environment this session on these and many other issues of importance. And we encourage our subscribers to use your voice as well: tell lawmakers to make this session – less impactful than 2023 though it may be – another one for the history books.

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