By Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership
On Thursday, April 2, the Minnesota Environmental Partnership and more than two dozen allied organizations sent a letter to the Walz Administration and Attorney General Keith Ellison, asking that they continue to protect Minnesotans’ environmental health and safety during the COVID-19 crisis.
Our request was twofold: that the Walz Administration temporarily suspend permitting for new and expanded projects, and that the MPCA provide certain safeguards while responding to COVID 19 circumstances. These proposals, while relatively simple in their implementation, would go a long way to protect Minnesota’s environmental well-being during and after this challenging time.
The first request asks that the state suspend environmental review and permitting for major and controversial projects, such as the Line 3 oil pipeline and copper sulfide mining proposals like PolyMet and Twin Metals. The request asks Governor Walz to direct state agencies to temporarily put this work on hold until the Peacetime Emergency order is lifted. These projects would reshape and threaten critical parts of Minnesota’s environment and climate action, and their review requires broad public participation.
Transparency and public accountability are key Minnesota values, and during this period of quarantines and social distancing, many Minnesotans will lack time and opportunity to comment on projects that could negatively impact the environment around them. And rapid economic changes during and after the peak of COVID-19 can radically change the needs of communities and government agencies.
With Minnesotans largely confined to our homes and with a health crisis on our minds, is not the time to be rushing through new fossil fuel infrastructure, factory farm expansions, or other hazardous projects. None of these projects are so urgent that they shouldn’t get a full hearing in front of Minnesotans.
The second request is for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) to provide public safeguards as it makes exceptions to environmental rules under its “flexibility” policy. The MPCA is granting variances from some rules as long as they work out conditions with the agency in advance. We can appreciate the challenges the MPCA faces at this time, but it’s vital that the public is fully aware of what flexibility is being granted and that it doesn’t jeopardize the health and safety of Minnesotans. Air pollutants can worsen COVID-19 and other respiratory diseases, and Minnesota shouldn’t be dealing with any greater health risks due to pollution at this critical time.
MEP and our partners asked the MPCA to set time limits for flexibility requests, make the requests and results available online, allow a brief public comment period, to deny permits when necessary, and to analyze the ultimate impact of regulatory flexibility. We recognize that with social distancing and stay-at-home policies at work, the MPCA can’t conduct business as usual, but neighbors and the public also need to be kept informed. It is good to see that the agency has already made some modifications to its procedures and is now posting all flexibility requests online.
COVID-19 has created a highly unusual and stressful time for Minnesota’s residents, economy, and public agencies. Minnesota’s environmental community deeply appreciates the measures our state has taken thus far to protect the health of all our neighbors. This is a moment for Minnesota to show what it can do for its people, and it shouldn’t be an opportunity to push through big highly controversial projects, as federal authorities are already doing. With the federal government appearing unwilling to protect our current and future environmental health, now, more than ever, we’re counting on our state to step up.