MPCA seeks broad community input

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, or MPCA, is currently soliciting community feedback on environmental concerns and agency practices in a survey that closes this Tuesday, February 15th. As one of the agencies most responsible for safeguarding Minnesota’s people, resources, and ecosystems, it’s critical that the MPCA hear feedback and needs from Minnesotans.

MEP is highlighting the survey this week because we and many of our member groups agree that the status quo is just not enough to protect  state’s future. We appreciate all the resources and work put into research, education and regulation by the MPCA in an effort to protect Minnesota resources, as well as agency staff’s efforts to reach out and include Minnesotans, especially those most impacted by pollution, in their decisionmaking. But too often, the industries that the MPCA is meant to regulate have exercised far too much influence over its decisions, subverting the public interest in a situation called “regulatory capture.”

Unfortunately, despite accelerating climate change, increasing water impairments, and other ecological hazards, the MPCA has continued business as usual in many regards. The agency has found ways to permit high-profile, environmentally dangerous projects, putting the resources they are charged with protecting at ever greater risk.

In the case of the PolyMet copper-nickel sulfide ore mine in northeastern Minnesota, the MPCA provided various pollution permits to the project, urging Minnesotans to “trust the process.” But the permits have been continually challenged and reversed in state courts. There are also lingering questions about whether the MPCA attempted to keep pollution concerns from the federal EPA out of the public eye.

In the Line 3 oil pipeline approval, the MPCA approved a water quality permit for the line, which carries enough oil that, when burned, it will create more emissions than the entire economy of Minnesta combined. MEP provided legal and scientific justification for the agency to reject the project, but the agency went ahead anyway. Line 3 has since caused as-yet-unquantified destruction to at least one vulnerable aquifer and resulted in numerous frac fluid spills along the route. As with PolyMet, Minnesotans were asked to put their faith in the process, but the MPCA never identified any possible offramp for the pipeline’s permits to be denied.

While the MPCA has identified environmental justice as a key concern, the dissonance between that concern and its decisions – especially on Line 3 – led most of the members of its Environmental Justice Advisory Group to resign in protest. According to the MPCA’s website, the formerly seventeen-member group now consists of just five advisors.

MEP recognizes that the agency faces frequent challenges to its authority and constraints on its funding. We strongly protested when the Minnesota Senate forced the resignation of MPCA Commissioner Laura Bishop – not due to any malfeasance on Bishop’s part, but because of some Senators’ opposition to largely climate-friendly policy decisions like the Clean Cars rule. We also asked Governor Walz to pause permitting for major projects overseen by the MPCA early in the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure the agency could properly do its job and include public input. We believe that the agency should be well-funded and free of political, corporate-oriented pressures, so that it can properly carry out its stated mission of “ensuring that every Minnesotan has healthy air, sustainable lands, clean water, and a better climate.”

But political headwinds don’t mean that the agency shouldn’t attempt to think beyond the scope of business as usual. Minnesota faces the crisis of a lifetime in climate change. As our state warms – faster than most other states, – we need agency leadership to challenge the idea that safety and environmental justice for our communities can coexist with massive new fossil fuel infrastructure and other dangerous projects.

What’s the solution?

The MPCA formerly had a measure of accountability in the form of its Citizens’ Board, which existed from the year the agency was first established. The appointed group of citizens from around the state could step in and overrule certain agency decisions if it found that they conflicted with the public interest. That sort of action was rare, but after the Citizens’ Board decision to require an environmental study for a factory farm despite MPCA leadership saying otherwise, the Legislature eliminated the Board entirely in 2015. Since then, there have been several legislative proposals to reinstate the committee, and MEP has spoken out in support.

In the meantime, we ask that our subscribers respond to the MPCA survey to ensure that the agency hears your concerns. It consists of two main parts: listing your top environmental priorities, and grading the agency on its work. We encourage respondents to draw on their own knowledge and opinions when filling it out, but our blog and 2022 Collaborative Priorities are available as a resource. We believe that the more Minnesotans’ voices are heard by the MPCA, the more likely it is that the agency will lean into its charge to protect our health and our childrens’ future.

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