Environmental advocates call for agency accountability

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Last week, MEP along with 15 other advocacy groups announced the launch of People Not Polluters, a campaign demanding that our state’s key regulatory agencies use existing laws and authority to protect Minnesotans from corporate polluters.

Minnesota’s agencies, including the Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and the Departments of Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Health, were established to do just that. But on critical permitting and pollution issues, they’ve treated corporate polluters as their clients, resulting in failures of the regulatory system we depend on. These failures have harmed Minnesotans’ health, degraded our natural resources, and eroded the trust between people and government institutions.

While we’ll continue to engage with agency leaders on this issue, the People Not Polluters campaign is calling for Minnesota Legislators to exercise their oversight authority to hold the agencies accountable. We’re asking leadership in the House and Senate to hold informational hearings to investigate how corporate polluters influence agency decisions and how we can fix this pattern of regulatory capture.

Why this effort, and why now?

MEP and our allies appreciate the good work of state agency scientists, inspectors, and experts to gather information on threats to our health and natural resources. But all the information in the world proving that a project or practice will pollute isn’t enough  when agencies side with a polluting industry anyway.

The People Not Polluters campaign supporters have identified a dozen key examples from recent history that show this issue in practice. These are not isolated incidents – they point to a paradigm in which agencies trust companies to act in the public interest.

1. Nitrate pollution in private wells: Southeastern Minnesota is suffering from a growing crisis of groundwater nitrate pollution, which is linked to birth defects and cancers. Nitrate largely comes from fertilizer runoff, which Minnesota agencies have done little to regulate. The EPA has admonished the DNR, MPCA, and Department of Health for its inaction and told them to develop a long-term solution.

2. Smith Foundry: In another case of federal intervention, the EPA discovered that Smith Foundry in Minneapolis had been polluting far more lead and particulates into the air than their permit. The MPCA failed to identify this public health problem for five years despite repeated complaints from residents.

3. Enbridge Line 3 pipeline: MEP has written extensively on the regulatory failures involving the Line 3 oil pipeline, in which agencies including the DNR, the MPCA, and the Public Utilities Commission refused time and again to halt Minnesota’s biggest climate disaster and a threat to our northern waters. The construction of the unneeded pipeline resulted in multiple aquifer breaches and is a major contributor to carbon pollution.

4. PolyMet mine cover-up: The MPCA attempted to keep criticisms from the EPA about its air quality permit for the PolyMet mine project out of the public record. PolyMet would be an environmental disaster for Minnesota, destroying thousands of acres of wetlands and threatening downstream communities with contamination. The MPCA’s coverup and its legal fallout are one of many reasons that the PolyMet mine has been indefinitely stopped in its tracks.

5. Northern Metal Recycling: The MPCA took ten years to deal with the massive lead and particulate pollution caused by Northern Metal Recycling in North Minneapolis, giving the company vast wiggle room to amend its permit. This resulted in worsened health outcomes for one of Minnesota’s most diverse communities, one already suffering the impacts of decades of concentrated pollution.

6. Water Gremlin: This battery terminal manufacturer in Ramsey County violated its air quality permit, spewing lead into the nearby air, for 17 years before the MPCA acted, drawing a scathing report from the Legislative Auditor on the agency’s failure.

7. Timber industry giveaways: The Minnesota DNR was cited for granting timber companies excess authority to harvest timber inside Wildlife Management Areas – where cutting trees can only be used for habitat enhancement, not to meet timber harvest goals – in 2021. This resulted in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service chastising the DNR and temporarily withholding federal wildlife funding.

8. Mining’s impact on wild rice: The MPCA has allowed the mining industry to freely violate its own Wild Rice Rule for sulfate pollution for more than fifty years, contributing to the ongoing loss of wild rice beds in northern Minnesota.

9. Dangerous Dewatering: Industrial interests including large farms and Enbridge have gotten away with pumping out groundwater far in excess of their DNR-issued permits, threatening the long-term health of Minnesota’s aquifers and lakes.

10. Feedlot expansion: The MPCA was rebuked by the state Court of Appeals for its leniency toward Daley Farms, which hopes to expand its dairy operation in the Southeast to more than 4,600 cows. That expansion, which has been highly controversial in Winona County, would threaten an already contaminated and vulnerable region with even more groundwater pollution.

11. Pesticide drift: Pesticides from Minnesota’s potato-growing regions are found to drift far beyond the fields where they are sprayed, where they devastate vital pollinating insect species and can contribute to cancers in humans. State agencies have done little, if anything, to restrict the use of these toxic pesticides.

12. Neonicotinoid insecticides: These pesticides are a particularly dangerous variety for pollinators, humans, birds, and other wildlife, and are often used to coat corn and soybean seeds. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture has refused to take any steps to regulate these treated seeds, claiming to lack authority even after a state law explicitly stated that it can regulate them.

What’s the next step?

The organizations supporting People Not Polluters will continue to monitor and speak out on these and other regulatory failures. We’ll also push hard for the Legislature to fulfill their constitutional duty to oversee executive branch agencies. The Legislature does not need to wait until next year or call a special session – they could hold informational hearings as early as this summer.

Now, we need Minnesotans’ support. By sending a message to key legislators using the People Not Polluters action tool, you can help build pressure for Minnesota to fully address the influence of polluting companies over our government. It’s an important step toward our goal of restoring trust in the institutions we created to protect our health and home.

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