Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership
March 1-5 marked Great Lakes Days 2021, an annual occasion of advocacy and collaboration with the Healing Our Waters (HOW) Great Lakes Coalition, for North America’s largest freshwater resource. Great Lakes Day brings together organizations from across the region to talk to members of Congress about the needs of this watershed, home to 30 million people.
Due to COVID-19, this year’s Great Lakes Day took place virtually (hence the Zoom screenshot at the beginning of this article.) Minnesota’s citizen delegation spoke up for our communities at the headwaters of Lake Superior. MEP is the Minnesota co-state lead of the HOW Coalition. Great Lakes Program Director Andrew Slade represented MEP staff. The team also included Steve Schultz of Clean Water Action, Kris Eilers of the St. Louis River Alliance, ChaQuana McEntyre of Families Rise Together, and Christina Trok of Duluth’s Health Equity-Northland. Additionally, MEP Board Member Mark Sanstead of Hastings Environmental Protectors, Whitney Smith of the Healing Our Waters Coalition, and MEP Executive Director Steve Morse each joined us for one congressional call.
Our team met virtually with staff members from the offices of U.S. Senators Klobuchar and Smith, as well as staffers for U.S. Representatives Craig, McCollum, Omar, Phillips, and Stauber. Our advocacy supported several priorities, but centered on the health of Lake Superior and the people who live on and near its shores.
Clean and Affordable Drinking Water
Communities like Duluth are able to draw from the world’s largest source of surface freshwater, but also tend to suffer from aging infrastructure and water pipes. In Duluth, lead water service lines are hurting families, especially in low-income communities. Children are especially vulnerable to this invisible problem, on which MEP has helped to shed light by organizing water testing in households. As Whitney Smith said in one of our meetings, “One child poisoned by lead in their drinking water is one too many.” To address this problem, we asked members of Congress for a $10 billion investment in the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, which would help to replace lead service lines around the basin.
Additionally, the COVID-19 recession and water infrastructure issues have left many families struggling to pay their water bills. The Minnesota team supported an extra $500 million in COVID-19 relief legislation for water bill relief.
Great Lakes Restoration
MEP has long supported continued and expanded Congressional funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), which has improved public health, natural habitat, water quality, and economic revitalization around the basin. In our meetings, we showcased the positive impacts of the GLRI on the St. Louis River Area of Concern in Northeastern Minnesota; GLRI has helped the water and landscape of the polluted St. Louis estuary to take large steps toward recovery in the last several years. Said Kris Eilers, “We’re rebuilding our relationship with the water, actually swimming and paddling on the St. Louis River now.”
We also focused on the issue of equity in distributing GLRI funds. Indigenous communities and communities of color around the Great Lakes experience disproportionate environmental threats from pollution, and have received less investment in recovery. ChaQuana McEntyre drew on her organizing experience as the founder and President of Families Rise Together in Duluth, telling Rep. McCollum’s staff, “People of color know the problems, they don’t know how to be part of the solution.” The GLRI should help give these communities the resources and information they need to improve public health and environmental quality at the local level.
Stopping Line 3
The planned Line 3 tar sands oil pipeline, like other Enbridge pipelines, passes through the Lake Superior watershed and threatens resources that are sacred to Minnesota tribes. A spill in the watershed would be immensely destructive to the Lake Superior ecosystem and communities nearby. And its climate impact, which will exceed Minnesota’s entire economy if it begins full operation, is a threat to the Great Lakes at large. Warmer temperatures are disrupting their ecology and threatening people with extreme weather events.
For all these reasons, winning Congressional support for action to put a hold on this project is needed. In our meetings, we thanked Representatives Omar and McCollum for their separate letters to President Biden, which both asked him for action to halt current pipeline construction. While other Minnesota members of Congress have been quiet or supportive on Line 3, we will continue working to build public pressure on them to protect Minnesota.
Democracy and the Environment
The HOW Coalition was deeply concerned about the anti-democratic actions after the November election, including those taken by former President Trump and by the insurrectionists at the US Capitol on January 6. Some members of the Minnesota Congressional Delegation enabled these anti-democratic actions by joining the Texas lawsuit or by voting to not accept the results of the Arizona and Pennsylvania elections. Because of these actions, the Minnesota Great Lakes Day team chose not to meet with Reps. Emmer, Fischbach and Hagedorn.
HOW sent a statement to every member of Congress from the Great Lakes. At its core, it says we believe there is a direct connection between a strong democracy and environmental protection.
Here’s a short excerpt:
“America’s democratic electoral process at local, state, and federal levels of government is a critical component in protecting the health of our communities and our water resources—as well as ensuring that no community has to disproportionately bear the brunt of pollution and environmental harm.”