New Commissioners have opportunity to build a brighter future

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By Matt Doll – Minnesota Environmental Partnership

This week, Governor-elect Tim Walz and Lieutenant Governor-elect Peggy Flanagan announced new additions to their team of state agency commissioners, including three with significant oversight over Minnesota’s environment: Sarah Strommen for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Laura Bishop for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), and Thom Petersen for the Department of Agriculture (MDA).

Sarah Strommen brings long environmental background to leadership of DNR

The Department of Natural Resources’ new Commissioner has been a nonprofit leader, a leader at the DNR and the Board of Water and Soil Resources, and the mayor of the city of Ramsey in Anoka County. Sarah Strommen also has ties to MEP partner organizations – she has worked for Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness and the Minnesota Land Trust, and served on the board of directors of Friends of the Mississippi River. She will be the first woman to lead the DNR, and will start at the job at a pivotal moment for Minnesota’s natural resources.

The DNR has responsibility for stewarding public lands, waters, recreational spaces, and wildlife throughout Minnesota. It enforces protections for resources ranging from public water supplies to pheasant populations, and operates the nation’s second-oldest state park system.

The DNR’s oversight public lands and waters can be contentious. Late in 2018, the DNR issued the final major permits for the PolyMet sulfide ore mine, a project that would threaten the health of Minnesota waters and communities if allowed to move forward. It would also set a troubling precedent for further sulfide mining projects, like the proposed Twin Metals mine on the edge of the Boundary Waters, which would also require DNR involvement.

Laura Bishop brings private and public-sector experience to MPCA

A Minnesota native, Laura Bishop currently works as Vice President of Public Affairs at Best Buy, where she has kept a significant focus on issues of sustainability and corporate social responsibility. She has previously served in federal and state government and abroad at the U.S. Embassy in Switzerland. Encouragingly, she has displayed her commitment to emissions reduction and homegrown leadership on climate action, and was part of Minnesota’s delegation to the COP21 climate conference in Paris in 2015.

A commitment to climate action is especially relevant for the MPCA’s new leader. The agency has the authority – and the responsibility – to regulate carbon emissions and help ensure that clean transportation continues to expand in Minnesota.

The PCA is also the main environmental protection agency that provides oversight for numerous projects, including industrial facilities and factory farms. Last month’s decision by the PCA to deny a permit for the proposed Catalpa swine factory farm in Fillmore County also initiate a regional review of water pollution in southeastern Minnesota. After this groundbreaking move, Bishop has an opportunity to keep her agency moving toward a more community-centered focus when evaluating new projects.

Thom Petersen brings a farmer’s perspective and policy experience in new role

Like current Commissioner Dave Frederickson, newly designated Ag Commissioner Thom Petersen has a background in farming and organizing with the Minnesota Farmers Union. Petersen has worked as Director of Government Relations for the union for sixteen years, and he and his family operate a horse farm in Pine City.

Petersen will arrive at the Department of Agriculture at a time when drinking water pollution is on the rise in many communities throughout Minnesota. Cities like Hastings, Cold Spring, and Altura are seeing more and more harmful nitrate pollution in their drinking water supplies, primarily due to crop fertilizer infiltrating local groundwater. For this reason, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture has been working on a new Groundwater Protection Rule that aims to reduce nitrate pollution in vulnerable areas by encouraging and enforcing healthier farming practices.

Commissioner Petersen will have to navigate his position to help protect Minnesota’s drinking water and advance the interests of family farms. Fortunately, the development of profitable new crops that promote soil health and greatly reduce fertilizer runoff present the MDA with an exciting opportunity. By working to encourage the use of these crops, the agency can ensure that Minnesota’s water and soil and the vitality of our rural communities improve together.

We wish the new leaders luck in 2019

At MEP, we’re looking forward to working with the new leaders in the Walz Administration. We know that Minnesotans value our health, our water, our natural resources, and our economic future. With bold, committed, and effective leadership, Minnesota’s new Commissioners can help protect all the things that make Minnesota a great place to live.

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