Bill would permanently shore up Boundary Waters

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Over the past month, thousands of visitors have been canoeing, backpacking, and portaging their way through Minnesota’s signature wilderness, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Between setting up camp and picking wild blueberries, many might stop to think about the value of this natural haven. And they might also consider what could happen if industry begins treating the Boundary Waters watershed as expendable.

The Boundary Waters is one of North America’s most pristine water resources, as well as one of its most vulnerable. The rivers and lakes that make up the area are highly interconnected, forming much of its natural beauty and ecological value. That, along with a long tradition of canoeing and fishing, makes the Boundary Waters a vital part of Minnesota’s recreation economy, and has helped justify the area’s special protections.

MEP holds the position that all watersheds of Minnesota deserve full protection, from the Red to the St. Louis, from the Rainy to the Des Moines. As the place where the Laurentian and St. Lawrence continental divides meet, we’re upstream from half a continent. Everything we do flows outward – witness this year’s Gulf of Mexico “dead zone” to see how local agricultural pollution and other sources of nutrients can harm those far beyond our borders.

We hope to see stronger protections for all of these watersheds, but the fact that so much national momentum is in favor of special protection for the Boundary Waters is an encouraging sign. Minnesota Representative Betty McCollum has introduced HR 2794, the Boundary Waters Wilderness Protection and Pollution Prevention Act. This bill would address the pressing threat to our northern waters – sulfide-ore copper mining – by banning it within the watershed of the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs National Park.

As we’ve written time and again, sulfide-ore mining is a bad idea for Northern Minnesota due to its tendency to leak toxic acid into the waters around it, ruining entire ecosystems. No such mine has ever operated in the United States without heavily polluting the surrounding environment. Backers of projects like Twin Metals and PolyMet claim that new technology can prevent these issues, but this technology hasn’t been proven to work, and by the companies’ own admission, years, decades or centuries of maintenance are required to prevent pollution even after these types of mines close.

Currently, Twin Metals – the most high-profile example of a sulfide mining project in the Boundary Waters watershed – is looking like a long shot to ever be built. The Biden Administration reinitiated a mineral withdrawal to prevent extraction in the area and canceled two of Twin Metals’ federal leases. The state DNR has halted the permitting process for the mine in light of those actions. And while Twin Metals is suing to reinstate the leases – and hopes, perhaps, that a future administration would be more favorable – the project has been fully stopped in its tracks for now.

But while sulfide mining companies may lack concern for the long-term effects of their mines on watersheds, they think in the long-term as far as permitting goes. A future Presidential administration could reinstate Twin Metals’ leases, as the Trump Administration did several years ago. While state and federal agencies are bound to follow the law and the science, the interpretation of that law can vary widely, and courts aren’t guaranteed to find in favor of those who care about water, climate, and wildlife.

That’s why permanent efforts like HR 2794 are so important. Natural treasures like the Boundary Waters need unambiguous, permanent protections. As water resources and ecosystems are threatened by climate change, we can’t afford to lose any more to pollution. And Minnesota’s massive recreation economy would suffer heavily if our northern waters are treated as expendable – their appeal to outdoors lovers, after all, is in their protection from harm.

We hope to see HR 2794 continue to advance in the House and gain sponsorship and support in the Senate. If passed, this bill would be a lifeline for the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs and could help pave the way for broader measures to save Minnesota’s watersheds.

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Minnesota solar power is looking bright

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

For much of our history as a state, coal was king when it came to generating Minnesota’s electricity, followed by nuclear power not far behind. It brought with it air pollution and a hefty share of the state’s contribution to climate change. It also meant that state dollars have flowed outward for years to buy coal from Wyoming, gas from North Dakota, and uranium from western states and abroad.

Fortunately, times have changed: since last year, coal and nuclear have both been dethroned by homegrown renewables, which generated almost 30% of the energy that powers our homes.  A large majority of that power came from wind turbines, primarily in the southern parts of the state like Buffalo Ridge, soon to be home to a major new hybrid wind and solar project. As that story illustrates, solar’s rise alongside wind in the North Star state is a big success story for our climate, health, and ecosystems, and it’s poised to accelerate.

Last year, solar panels provided almost 4% of Minnesota’s electricity. That might not sound enormous, but it represents rapid progress from where we started. In 2007, when the state passed the historic Next Generation Energy Act, we had around one megawatt of solar generation capacity – only enough to power about 164 homes. In 2013 MEP and multiple partner organizations developed the “Clean Energy & Jobs” campaign, proposing that the state adopt a solar standard requiring that 10% of our electricity come from solar sources by 2030. Instead the legislature opted for a 1.5% standard by 2020 and a 10% goal by 2030. 

Ten years later, it’s great to see that not only was the 2020 standard easily met, but we are well on our way to achieving the 2030 goal, even if it is not a required standard. Today, we’ve reached over 1,700 megawatts installed and counting, enough to power more than 200,000 homes. Panels can be seen on rooftops in Minneapolis, massive solar farms in Chisago County, and other installations across the state.

Pushing through challenges

As Minnesota’s numerous “snowbird” residents can tell you, we’re not exactly a sunshine state. Minnesota is in the bottom third of states for annual hours of sunlight. Yet solar is still proving to provide a viable energy source year-round in our state. Even with our natural conditions, as of 2021, we’re in the top 15 states for solar power, with more than 4,500 jobs in the industry. As we wrote in June, the Heights is an example of a Minnesota development that may rely on solar for virtually all of its energy needs. One of MEP’s key priorities is ensuring that clean energy training is available in communities of color to ensure they benefit from this transition.

This progress is a testament to state policies, like the Next Generation Energy Act and the 2013 Solar Standard, that Minnesota has put in place. It’s also evidence of how far the cost of solar has plummeted. Once among the most expensive sources of energy, as anticipated, solar is projected to become the cheapest source of power in the world within a few years. Combined with wind and storage technology, solar energy can meet most of our needs.

That’s not to say that solar power will replace all fossil fuels. While the economics are on its side, we still have to provide the political will to bring about the transition. At the local level, county boards have been known to block permits for solar installations based on misconceptions or political disagreements about solar.

Bottlenecks in supplies and approval by utilities, like the backup of applications to connect solar projects to Xcel Energy’s grid, also tend to disrupt progress. While Minnesota solar growth continues, it has not yet returned to its 2017 peak of over 400 megawatts of capacity installed.

A new wave of installations?

Minnesota’s drive for more solar looks poised to be reenergized by the Inflation Reduction Act. Analysts project that the IRA will help the number of solar panels in the U.S. quadruple by 2030, from 240 million to upwards of 950 million panels. The law also invests heavily in battery storage projects, a crucial support factor for ensuring that customers have access to reliable power when the sun isn’t shining, as well as expanded power grid infrastructure to transmit that power.

Additionally the IRA increases and extends tax credits for residential solar – previously set to expire in 2024 – for the next decade. That will help boost stability for consumers and installers, who previously faced uncertainty about whether they would benefit from the tax credit on projects installed in the next few years.

Now that this landmark federal legislation has been passed, however, Minnesota still has to ensure we take advantage of it. In many cases, we’ll need the state legislature to pass funding for clean energy projects to access federal matching funds, and to tailor our programs to help diverse and low-income communities – too often left behind by economic transitions – access these benefits. That means that organizations like MEP, partnering with our more than 70 member organizations and connecting with grassroots supporters, will be working hard to generate the political will for investments in our sun-powered future.

As the climate crisis becomes ever more apparent in the headlines, it should be clear to everyone that a clean energy revolution is a need, not a luxury. We know that Minnesotans are ready for this transition, and with local action bolstered by the IRA, we believe we can get it done.

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Americans – and the planet – can’t afford fossil gas

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Photo credit: Department of Energy

Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

On Tuesday, August 17, U.S. natural gas – also known as fossil gas – prices reached their highest level in 14 years. The reasons why are complex. A hot summer is driving high electricity use, natural gas extraction is relatively low, and trade disruptions caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine have driven up demand in Europe.

Some analysts argue that the time is therefore ripe to boost drilling and fracking, driving prices down by tackling the supply side. That might reduce the prices for a time, but it won’t solve the underlying problem. Natural gas, like coal and oil, is a finite, unstable, and dangerous fossil fuel resource.

Consumers in the U.S. will always be at the mercy of natural gas prices as long as we continue to build infrastructure that relies on it. As long as we generate a significant percentage of our electricity and the majority of building heating with natural gas, we’ll be vulnerable to system shocks. When Texas was hit by a blizzard last year that massively disrupted its natural gas power generation, Minnesota wasn’t spared from the price shocks that rippled outward.

Meanwhile, natural gas – which mostly consists of methane – and its extraction is making our climate crisis worse. Methane is an outsize contributor to the climate crisis – while it doesn’t stay in the atmosphere nearly as long as carbon dioxide, it traps far more heat. The oil and gas industry is the single largest source of methane emissions in the United States due to its leaky wells.

Fortunately, the Inflation Reduction Act includes first steps to curb methane, including an emissions fee on the potent pollutant. It also includes historically large subsidies for building electrification and efficiency, which will help reduce the amount of natural gas that consumers use and drive down energy prices.

Building electrification can also boost human health, because the use of natural gas in cooking carries its own issues. Cooking with gas, even with some level of ventilation – can spread massive levels of carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides. Those chemicals aren’t usually immediately fatal, but over the long term they can contribute to health issues like cancer and asthma. Lower-income households are especially vulnerable due to poor ventilation and older appliances. Gas stoves also have an alarming tendency to leak methane into the atmosphere, making a relatively small but significant contribution to climate change.

Some local governments, recognizing that natural gas reliance isn’t green or good for consumer’s wallets, are banning new natural gas connections in construction. Cities like New York, Seattle, San Francisco, have moved ahead with partial or complete bans on new gas infrastructure, even as some states pass legislation to preempt these bans.

What can Minnesota do?

In this environment, it’s especially frustrating that Minnesota Power is attempting to build a $700 million natural gas plant, the Nemadji Trail Energy Center (NTEC) to generate electricity in Superior, Wisconsin. Despite clear evidence that new natural gas infrastructure is a dead-end pathway that could make it much harder to meet our emissions reductions needs, NTEC has won approval from state regulators in both Wisconsin and Minnesota. However, it’s still working to get approval at the federal level, and groups like MEP members Honor the Earth, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, and Sierra Club are continuing to work against the plant.

Fortunately, the EPA at least partially agrees with those organizations. The agency recommended that the US Department of Agriculture redo its environmental review of NTEC, arguing that it did not adequately account for the plant’s greenhouse gas emissions. If the project can be stopped or stalled due to concerns with carbon emissions, it will be a significant victory for the climate and for the health of Twin Ports residents.

Beyond stopping new fossil gas plants, Minnesota has a tough nut to crack when it comes to moving away from this volatile fuel. Roughly two-thirds of homes in the state are heated by natural gas, which also generates 21% of our electricity. Our cold winters present a unique challenge for reducing those numbers.

Fortunately, the future isn’t far away. Increasingly inexpensive renewable electricity, improved heat pumps, and emerging technologies that can help cure what ails us, as long as they get adequate state and federal investment to get them established. The day may not be far away when Minnesotans won’t need to worry about the price of natural gas.

How you can help: Add your name to the Sierra Club’s petition for Minnesota Power to move toward renewable energy and away from harmful boondoggles like NTEC.

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Line 3 aquifer damage just keeps piling up

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

On Thursday, August 4, the independent citizen science group Waadookawaad Amikwag – also known as Those Who Help Beaver – released evidence that Enbridge’s construction of its Line 3 oil pipeline did even more damage to Minnesota waters than previously known. In a new video, the group showed that the LaSalle aquifer is still leaking at the site where a breach caused by Line 3 construction was discovered a year ago.

The LaSalle aquifer, along with the lake and creek of the same name, sits near the headwaters of the Mississippi River. From below the surface, the aquifer feeds the wetlands with fresh water. These wetlands are a highly interconnected ecosystem that plays a crucial role in keeping the upper Mississippi clean, but that interconnectedness also makes the ecosystem vulnerable to system shocks.

Enbridge, unsurprisingly, inflicted such a shock to the system. Waadookawaad Amikwag’s video illustrates how Enbridge’s used steel sheet piling to stabilize the trench for its pipeline. Those steel sheets pierced the clay between the surface and the aquifer below, causing water to gush upward.

To “fix” this breach, Enbridge dug pipes into the clay, then pumped over 51,000 gallons of grout down to cap the aquifer. The concrete-like grout wall was meant to stop the water from escaping, but didn’t remotely mimic the natural processes that allow the aquifer to periodically feed the wetland. Nor, as it turned out, did it actually do what it was meant to.

Waadookawaad Amikwag worked with the White Earth Reservation, R.I.S.E. Coalition, and MEP members Honor the Earth, Sierra Club, and MN350 to conduct thermal imaging of the site last November – after Enbridge’s purported repair of the breach. The results led scientists to suspect that there were still plenty of leaks. Unseasonable temperatures in the creek around the site indicated that the aquifer’s warmer water was still bubbling up to the surface.

That’s bad news for the entire ecosystem. A pressure decrease in an aquifer can jeopardize its natural interaction with the surrounding wetlands, damaging or even drying them up. And that in turn is bad news for the Mississippi and the people who depend on its watershed, deprived of yet another natural process that keeps it clean. Even absent these breaches, that much concrete poured into the clay over an aquifer may have more uncertain consequences for the LaSalle Valley’s health.

No need – and no real accountability

MEP has long taken the position that this pipeline is not needed. But at the bare minimum, Enbridge should have listened to engineers and geologists about the danger of trenching through the LaSalle Valley. Experts – both independent and state-affiliated – raised concerns for years that sheet piling could harm Minnesota aquifers, especially in this location.

LaSalle isn’t the only place Enbridge breached an aquifer, nor where the pipeline is causeingongoing harm. At least two other breaches have occurred, and pipeline monitors are continuing to investigate along the route. The excavation process also produced frac-outs – spills of hydraulic fracturing fluid into the ecosystem. MEP has hosted webinars – one last September and one in January – where scientists and Indigenous leaders covered these issues in detail.

With this new information coming to light, Waadookawaad Amikwag, the R.I.S.E. coalition and allies are renewing the call for accountability from Enbridge. Yesterday, on the shores of LaSalle lake, they commemorated the one-year anniversary of the breach and called for a state and federal strategy to monitor and mitigate the pipeline’s impacts.

So far, state agencies have not enacted any meaningful consequences for the company’s actions, and the so-called fix of the aquifer has evidently done additional harm. It’s shocking, but perhaps unsurprising, that Enbridge has escaped the scrutiny that would significantly impact its business model.

This is the company that built a pipeline carrying the emissions equivalent of 50 coal-fired power plants every year, even when the state Commerce Department said the pipeline wasn’t needed. This is the company that has defied the state of Michigan’s order to shut down its Line 5 pipeline. This is the company that brought Minnesota the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history.

“Part of the tragedy here is that none of this is a surprise,” said Steve Morse, MEP’s Executive Director. “Indigenous leaders, environmental organizations and independent experts warned well before this project was permitted that Line 3’s construction would harm Minnesota’s water resources and ecosystems, and that its operation threatens our long-term health with spill risks and worsened climate change. Yet, the project moved through the established process without meaningful scrutiny by our Government agencies. We stand in solidarity with Waadookawaad Amikwag and other Indigenous and scientific leaders in calling for full accountability from Enbridge.”

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Federal climate deal poised to make history

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At a time when states and countries – including Minnesota – are struggling to cut greenhouse gas emissions at the scale needed to stave off climate catastrophe, the announcement that U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senator Joe Manchin have cut a deal for unprecedented and transformative investment in climate action is just the kind of good news we need.

While not a perfect bill – it contains significant giveaways to certain fossil fuel interests – the Inflation Reduction Act would steer $369 billion toward protecting our future. If passed, it would invest in greening the many sectors – industry, energy, agriculture, and transportation – that are the largest sources of climate pollution. It would deliver cost savings and energy stability to consumers to combat inflation. It would make communities across the nation cleaner, healthier and safer places to live.

Most importantly, this legislation would cut carbon emissions. The bill’s authors and backers estimate that it would lead to a 40% reduction in U.S. emissions by 2030 – as Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii put it, “The planet is on fire. Emissions reductions are the main thing.” A 40% reduction in emissions isn’t enough to meet our needs or our national commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement goals, but it’s perhaps the biggest step in the right direction our country has ever taken. And it’s very good news for Minnesota.

The emissions picture


In the United States, transportation, electricity, and industry are the largest sectors for emissions, followed by buildings and agriculture. Transportation is a particularly stubborn sector, with the nation’s car-centric (not to mention plane-centric) infrastructure making it difficult to reduce tailpipe emissions. We have an easier path forward with electricity, given the massive decreases in wind and solar prices over the last few decades.

In Minnesota, which is the nation’s fifth-largest agricultural economy, agriculture makes up a bigger part of the picture, though it also includes carbon-capturing forest regrowth. Despite passing what was then the nation’s strongest clean energy requirement in 2007, Minnesota has fallen behind in our emissions reductions goals. The recent construction of the Line 3 tar sands oil pipeline is an example of poor decision-making and part of a pattern of insufficient action to confront this crisis.

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

While we have technological and economic challenges to overcome to reduce these emissions to zero, the overall framework is no mystery. We need to simultaneously:

  • reduce the amount of energy we use
  • convert the energy we still need to electricity (or other clean forms of energy) everywhere it can be done
  • generate that electricity from zero-emission sources
  • eliminate stray emissions sources like methane from fossil fuel extraction, and
  • restore natural systems and carbon sinks like forests wherever we can. 

It’s a big lift, and for years, the US and Minnesota haven’t had anywhere near the investment needed to make major progress. If Congress votes the right way, that’s about to change.

A really big deal

Minnesota’s U.S. Senator Tina Smith, who has worked persistently for months to make this  deal happen, tweeted about the deal, “$370B for climate and energy and 40% emissions reduction by 2030. BFD.” We agree with that assessment, and not just because of the level of investment – how it invests matters.

As the graphs above show, homes generate a lot of emissions from heating and cooling, a problem that’s growing with more extreme weather events from climate change. Because so much of this heating and cooling is powered by fossil fuels, it’s subject to price shocks and is a big driver of inflation. For that reason, the bill invests billions in rebates, tax credits, and grants for Americans to make their homes more energy-efficient and powered by clean energy. In Minnesota, where homes are too often reliant on fluctuating natural gas supplies for heating, this is a move that will mean huge savings for consumers and families.

Efficiency goes hand-in-hand with electrification, and this bill includes billions for technology like heat pumps and other appliances. It also funds zero emission vehicles for entities like the Postal Service, waste and recycling services, and public transit agencies and helps to retrofit US manufacturing plants to produce those vehicles. Like fossil fuels, the costs of these products also impact inflation and scaling up production capacity will help to drive down costs and accelerate the industries we need.

Likewise, the Inflation Reduction Act also bolsters clean electricity generation, ramping up the production of American-made solar panels, wind turbines, storage technology, and future breakthroughs to generate power cleanly and affordably. It also makes changes to permitting procedures to help accelerate new clean energy projects.

Industrial emissions, making up about a quarter of the U.S. greenhouse gas mix, are heavy targets in the bill. Industries like chemicals, petroleum, cement, and steel are major climate offenders, and the bill would use tax credits and cleanup funds to cut these emissions  significantly.

The bill includes natural carbon solutions as well, setting aside funds for forests that resist fire and sequester carbon, as well as coastal habitats at risk from rising seas. It also funds climate-smart agriculture and biofuels. Biofuels is a thorny issue – ethanol in particular has not shown itself to be a climate solution – but can also include new low carbon intensity crops developed here in Minnesota that can support healthy soils.

A key aspect of the bill is its investment in environmental justice, bringing benefits to communities of color and low-income communities that continue to suffer the brunt of climate impacts and pollution. The bill includes grants to support equitable transportation and address health impacts due to pollution, and targets clean energy tax credits toward disadvantaged communities.

Not perfect, but a way forward

As many climate justice organizations have pointed out, the Inflation Prevention Act isn’t a perfect bill by any means. Some provisions are generous to fossil fuel companies and other heavily polluting industries and will make their needed transition away from fossil fuels more difficult. Streamlining permitting for natural gas pipelines, for example, is not part of the solution. The bill also opens up additional lands to oil leasing. If this bill passes, these provisions should be reversed and all possible oil and gas left in the ground.

But this bill will get us moving at a time when we can’t afford to stand still. If it passes, it will do what it sets out to do – fight climate change, tackle inflation by cutting energy costs, and reduce the national debt by restructuring a number of federal taxes.

The fact that this bill is so close to becoming a reality is a testament to those who have worked for it. We owe thanks not just to the members of Congress that conferred in back rooms, but to the ordinary people: community members and grassroots organizations who spoke out, who protested, who voted, who made demands for climate action impossible to ignore. Their ideas, hopes, and passion have made this moment possible.

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Saint Paul full steam ahead on lead line removal

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Most Minnesotans in the Twin Cities don’t have to worry too much about what’s flowing through the pipes in their home. The area’s utilities filter water from the Mississippi River, carefully managing pH and chemical composition to provide clean, readily drinkable water. But for more than 25,000 households in and around Saint Paul, water isn’t always safe because of the very service lines it flows through – pipes made of lead.

The good news: Saint Paul’s water utility has announced a plan to replace all lead water service lines, both publicly and privately owned, within the next ten years.

The danger of lead

It’s no exaggeration to say that the way the world used lead in the 20th century – and in some places, continues to do so – is one of history’s greatest public health tragedies. Lead in gasoline poisoned entire generations through vehicle fumes. Lead in water pipes and paint continues to threaten millions of people, with children, low-income and communities of color suffering the worst effects.

No level of lead in the bloodstream is safe, but the higher the levels, the worse the effects. It can cause organ damage and impair children’s brain development, making victims especially likely to suffer from behavioral and other psychological problems. Some scientists have advanced a “lead-crime hypothesis,” arguing that higher levels of lead exposure can contribute to higher levels of crime.

In the United States, we’ve largely done away with using lead in gasoline (except in small aircraft), water pipes, or paint. But there’s plenty of existing and actively harmful lead in homes, especially in older housing. Water service lines are the most visible example, and one of the key targets of our efforts to get the lead out.

There are ways to mitigate drinking water exposure to lead. Utilities can control pH to help a protective film form over pipes to prevent corrosion. Families can use water filters and run the tap for a few minutes each day to minimize exposure.

But not everyone knows if they have lead in their pipes, and filters can’t always get everything. Again, no level of lead in the body is safe. The only surefire way to prevent exposure is to remove the service line and replace it with copper. That can be complicated – in most homes, the utility only owns part of the service line, while the section on the private property is privately owned.

MEP’s recent work in Duluth helped shine a spotlight on lead exposure from water pipes. Since then, the City of Duluth has expanded its effort to test, map, and replace its lead service lines. We’ve also lobbied the Legislature to Get the Lead Out, including supporting efforts to replace all lead service pipes within 10 years across the state. Today, we’re glad to see Saint Paul on the cusp of tackling their lead lines problem once and for all.

Saint Paul’s plan

Saint Paul Regional Water Services serves the city of Saint Paul and several suburban areas surrounding it. For some time, SPRWS has helped residents find out if they have lead service lines both inside and outside their house and given them options to replace them. But in most cases, the cost to replace the section on private property, including inside the house, still falls on the consumer, whether paid upfront or over time.

Now, thanks to $200 million in federal infrastructure dollars, consumers may soon be off the hook. Starting this year, SPRWS will begin replacing lead service lines entirely free of charge. Residents who wish to replace their service lines earlier can still do so.

That $200 million is money extremely well-spent. A 2019 Minnesota Department of Health report estimated that removing all lead service lines from Minnesota homes would cost as much as $365 million, but the benefits to the state would be much higher.

Getting the lead out means lower medical costs, lower rates of childhood developmental disabilities, and higher quality of life for thousands of people. In a state where low-income and communities of color are especially at risk of lead poisoning, it’s also one of the most positive actions we can take for environmental justice.

MEP will continue to advocate for Minnesota to invest in lead service line replacement around the state. For now, we’re glad to see “the most livable city in America” becoming a safer place to live.

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Minnesota weather is getting weirder

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Most people in Minnesota have heard the famous phrase about our weather patterns. “We have two seasons, winter and road construction.” It’s not literally true, of course, but it feels that way, with snowstorms showing up for the first taste of winter in October and the last in May.

Though it gets less popular attention, the inverse – our hot summers – is also true. We often hear another saying: “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.”

We joke about the weather because it’s a shared experience, and because our weather is indeed weird. The famous Halloween blizzard that blanketed the Twin Cities happened before I was born, but I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard about it since living here.

With a changing climate, our weather is getting stranger. As one of the fastest-warming states, Minnesota is vulnerable to big changes, changes so visible that climate science denial seems more purposefully ignorant than ever.

Right now, floodwaters are finally receding on Rainy Lake on Minnesota’s northern border. Throughout June and early July, hundreds of residents have suffered from flooding.

“Property owners have seen damage that will take years to repair, businesses have stalled or will be in financial straits at the end of the season,” said International Falls resident Megan Bond. “We live in a northwoods paradise and it is being slowly eaten by the effects of frequent, severe weather conditions caused by the climate crisis.”

Other waters have been high, though for most of the state, flooding hasn’t been as bad as it was in the spring of 2019. That year, the valleys of the Red, the Minnesota, the Mississippi, and the St. Croix all experienced floods. Communities from Moorhead to Stillwater piled up sandbags as water inundated roads and farmland.

Last year, on the other hand, Minnesota faced the worst drought in decades. Vast swaths of grass and crops went dry, hitting farmers especially hard. It’s for that reason the Legislature passed funding in the Ag bill for grants to affected farms, up to $7500 per farmer. International Falls wasn’t spared either: according to Bond, “We experienced a record dry year with wildfires burning so badly our air quality was worse than Los Angeles in the ‘80s.”

After the drought, of course, Minnesota ended the year with our first-ever recorded December tornado.

Historically, it’s been tricky to determine how much of any given weather event is due to our changing climate. Fortunately, scientists have made big strides forward on making it easier to make the cause and effect clearer.

Regardless, we know that more heat waves, storms, droughts, and wildfire smoke are making Minnesotans’ lives worse. They’re not doing so equally, either: it’s well-established that communities of color that have suffered a history of segregation tend to suffer hotter temperatures, even within the same city.

What’s the next step?

The real question is not whether climate change is impacting Minnesota’s weather, making it weirder and worse. Our changing temperatures will have dire consequences for people and wildlife adapted to cooler temperatures. What we need to decide now is what to do about it.

For the answer, we need to build up clean energy and do away with dirty energy. As Bond put it to me, “We need to stop pulling fossil fuels out of the Alberta tar sands. We need more wind energy throughout the state. We need to safeguard the protected lands and waters in the Rainy Lake Basin. ”

Around the state, we need density in cities and restored habitat in natural spaces. We need green infrastructure to mitigate floods and more trees, especially in environmental justice communities, to mitigate heatwaves. Conversely, we need to stop expanding highways and focus on more transit and more safety for cyclists and pedestrians. And in everything we do, we must listen to low-income and communities of color most impacted by climate change and pollution.

Recent legislative efforts are a start, but we need to do a lot more. If we’re unsuccessful, future generations will reap the whirlwind. But if we commit to real climate action, we’ll improve our health, create jobs and economic growth, save us billions of dollars in direct climate change damages and protect our natural resources from more damage. Minnesota can be an example for the world to follow – and a better place for all of us to live.

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Court defies precedent, deals blow to EPA climate effort

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Smokestacks and power lines under a dark sky

Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

This week the deeply divided U.S. Supreme Court announced a decision in West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency that dealt a major blow to the EPA’s ability to regulate carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants The decision by the conservative court majority sets the stage for further limitations on the regulatory power of other agencies.

West Virginia, along with several other states, argued that the EPA can’t use its authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate climate emissions from power plants. The states said that because Congress did not specifically name these emissions in the Clean Air Act, the EPA can’t make rules that would curb them. The EPA contended that Congress clearly delegates the power to make emissions rules to federal agencies, as generally happens with environmental law.

The 6-3 ruling interpreting the Clean Air Act will keep the administration from implementing the type of wide-ranging emissions-cutting plan the EPA tried to put in place during the Obama Administration. The decision also appears to point toward major new limits on agency regulations across the economy, limits of a kind not imposed by the court for over 75 years.

The Biden Administration has vowed to move forward with other efforts to curb power plant pollution. The President pledged to put the U.S. on track to cut carbon emissions in half by 2030. But there’s no doubt that this decision is a wrongheaded step backward at a time when the nation and the world can’t afford not to move ahead. 

Power plants currently account for a little under a third of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Fortunately, they’re one of the easiest sources to fix. Wind and solar power are now among the cheapest energy sources in history. Major utilities like Xcel Energy are developing plans to reach net zero sooner rather than later.

But if the EPA can’t target power plants, especially coal plants, for shutdown by regulating their carbon emissions, it becomes easier for fossil fuel backers to prop them up long past their usefulness. In the long term, that puts our livable climate and future of humanity at risk. In the short term, it means that more Americans, especially low-income and communities of color, will suffer from asthma attacks and other health threats, the very conditions the Clean Air Act was created to prevent.

The way forward

This wrench in the EPA’s plans doesn’t limit state action, however, and makes it all the more important that we act locally. States like Minnesota have had some successes in shutting down coal plants and preventing their replacement by dead-end pathways like fossil gas. But we still only get about a fourth of our electricity from renewables.

To reach our goals and protect Minnesotans from pollution we’ll need to build: more wind turbines, vastly more solar panels, energy storage, and an effective, resilient power grid. We’ll also need to target emissions sources larger than electricity generation, namely transportation and agriculture. We don’t need to rely on pipe dreams to replace coal and oil – most of the tools we need currently exist, as long as state leaders at the Legislature, Governor’s office, and Public Utilities Commission have the will to use them.

On a broader level, decisions like these, driven by ideology rather than science, call to question what can be done about the Supreme Court’s disregard of the facts. The Supreme Court is not composed of climate experts and yet seems determined to make its decisions without listening to expert agencies, like the EPA, and with no regard for scientific reality or public opinion.

Americans understood what they were supporting in 1963 when Congress passed the Clean Air Act, and in 1970 when they heavily amended it to give the federal government more authority. They saw dark clouds over their cities, choked on smog on the roads, and demanded action. Today, poll after poll shows that most Americans understand the threat of climate change and want action to end dirty energy.

At a time when both our climate and our democracy face crises like never before, we need to imagine bold solutions to protect the future of both.

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Forest Service report supports BWCA protection

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Last fall, the Biden Administration resumed the effort toward a 20-year withdrawal of federal permits for sulfide mining on federal lands surrounding the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. This week, the U.S. Forest Service took a key step forward with an Environmental Assessment of the proposed withdrawal, moving closer to long-term protection for one of our greatest water and wilderness resources.

The Environmental Assessment, which will inform the process and the Secretary of the Interior’s final decision on the withdrawal, studied the possible impacts of both the withdrawal and of allowing sulfide mines such as Twin Metals to go forward. It found, unsurprisingly, that copper-nickel sulfide mines would have negative consequences on the environment and economy of Boundary Waters area communities.

It’s no secret that sulfide mining is a dirty industry. Sulfide mining can produce acid waste and sulfates that mobilize the release of heavy metals like lead and mercury into the environment that are known neurotoxins. No such mine has ever been operated in the United States without significant pollution to the surrounding environment and harm to human health.

As the assessment recognizes, in an interconnected, water ecosystem like the Boundary Waters, such pollution spells catastrophe for waters and people downstream. And that’s not just during the mine’s operation. After the mine has been shut down, runoff of toxic substances like sulfuric acid is even more likely because of a lack of guaranteed support for monitoring and containment.

The Forest Service also notes that Minnesota tribal communities would be negatively impacted by sulfide mining, perhaps most visibly through the damage to wild rice. Wild rice is foundational to Anishinaabe culture and guaranteed to their tribes in Minnesota, and a sulfide mine would certainly impact the rice beds through sulfates downstream or changes in water levels.

The economic takeaway from the assessment is also key. The Forest Service notes that while a sulfide mine like Twin Metals would result in a short-term boom – with an uncertain number – of high-paying jobs, it would only last for the mine’s operation. After that, the boom would necessarily give way to a bust.

In the meantime, pollution and land destruction would reduce the Boundary Waters’ growing recreation economy, killing long-term jobs. In their own words, “over time the economic benefits of mining tend to be outweighed by the negative impact of mining on the recreation economy.” The mineral withdrawal is far and away the more economically sustainable option.

The next step

The release of this Environmental Assessment kicks off a 30-day period in which the Forest Service will take comments on the document. After that, the Bureau of Land Management will collect, examine, and summarize the comments so that Interior Secretary Deb Haaland can then make a decision on the withdrawal. If all goes as many MEP groups hope, this action could be the final word in the saga of the Twin Metals mine, already dealt a blow when the federal government revoked permits and the DNR then ceased work on the mine’s environmental review. 

In the long-term, this ban could protect the Boundary Waters for many years to come, but it could also be reversed by a future administration. Legislative solutions, like Representative Betty McCollum’s Boundary Waters Wilderness Protection and Pollution Prevention Act, would be more durable. And we also need protections for other vulnerable areas of the state, like the St. Louis River and Lake Superior watersheds under threat from PolyMet. Prove it First legislation, which would prevent a sulfide mine from opening in Minnesota unless a similar mine can operate and shut down safely elsewhere, would help provide permanent security for all state waters.

For now, MEP is glad to see the Forest Service move forward to keep the waters of the north clean for future generations, for wildlife and for tribal communities of today.

What you can do: Sign onto a petition to the Forest Service from WaterLegacy or the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters in support of the mining ban. 

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In east Saint Paul, a carbon-free community is in the works

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

In a departure from our usual MEP voice, this column has been written from the author’s personal perspective.

I’ll forgive you if you’re not familiar with St. Paul’s Greater East Side, the area of the city that I call home. Though it’s an area with a rich culture and history, our landmarks aren’t necessarily the best known in the Twin Cities. Today, a new development is poised to change that, to make it the home of a bright spot in climate action: a project called the Heights. This development of an urban brownfield has the chance to be one of Minnesota’s greatest opportunities to show how to accomplish sustainable development.

A little background

The Greater East Side is a square-shaped community of about 30,000 people, or one in ten St. Paulites. It’s a working class area, one of the youngest and most diverse in the entire state. Successive waves of newcomers have made a home here for generations, most recently and notably the Hmong-American community. Once Dakota land, it features high hills on one end and the now-underground Phalen Creek on the other. There are schools, stores, parks, places of worship, and all different types of housing, intersected by roads, rails, and several bus lines.

For most of a century, it was also home to the Hillcrest Golf Course, a hilly 112-acre plot of greens and trees between residential neighborhoods and the suburb of Maplewood. For some years, starting in the years when the Twin Cities was a hotbed of anti-semitism, it was St. Paul’s only Jewish golf course. It changed hands several more times until finally being sold to the St. Paul Port Authority by the local Pipefitters union.

The former golf course is currently fenced in and closed to the public.

Golf, unfortunately, isn’t the most environmentally-friendly of land uses, despite the trees and shrubs. Decades of using mercury to manage weeds and fungi have turned most of the site into a brownfield, currently unsafe for human uses. The mercury has contaminated the soil and two of the site’s small wetlands. At the moment, the course is more or less a fenced-in, polluted hole in the community. And that empty space is a big opportunity.

The carbon-free dream

The Port Authority, the City of St. Paul, and residents like me have big dreams about how to fill it, dreams that include minimizing carbon emissions on one of the most ambitious levels ever attempted. If all goes well, this development – now known as the Heights – won’t just be a sustainability trailblazer in St. Paul, not just in Minnesota, but in the entire world. By building in solar power, geothermal heating and cooling, highly efficient buildings, and advanced management of stormwater, the Heights will be an example for thousands of other communities to follow.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been a booster for this site since early in the process. I’ve showed up at the neighborhood events, filled out the surveys, and participated on a workgroup to help develop and finalize the sustainability plan for the site. My perspective on the Heights is one of many, and I’m not an expert on all of the housing and economic development aspects of the plan, but the sustainability angle has deeply impressed me.

Earlier this month, the St. Paul City Council approved the Hillcrest Master Plan and zoning updates for the site, the broad blueprint that will allow the Port Authority to move forward with more specific plans. The Council and the relevant city commissions took input from residents, local business owners, and housing and sustainability advocates on what needs to happen to make the site a success. No one has gotten 100% of what they wanted, and some of the details on housing stock, businesses, and outdoor spaces have yet to be decided. But the move forward is an exciting one at a time when climate action is more urgently needed than ever.

A climate action model

The Port Authority and the City’s intention for the development is carbon neutrality, using the U.S. Green Building Council’s platinum-level LEED certification for Cities and Communities as its framework. This certification covers the materials used, energy consumption and generation, water infrastructure, waste, natural systems, and other related categories.

In order to achieve this bold, necessary goal, the Master Plan calls for low-carbon materials (as opposed to intensive ones like concrete) in buildings wherever possible, as well as well-insulated and otherwise highly efficient construction. Wherever possible, energy will be generated on the site with solar panels and geothermal systems to avoid the use of fossil fuels, and may be managed with a district energy system to maximize efficiency. The use of fossil gas will be avoided wherever possible in favor of safer carbon-free technology.

Land use will also benefit the site’s carbon neutrality and ecological benefits. While most of the trees currently on the golf course will have to be removed as part of the soil remediation, the species that will replace them will be chosen for their ability to sequester carbon and adapt to climate change. Wherever possible, landscaped areas will be planted with native vegetation friendly to pollinators and wildlife. The wetlands that can’t be saved due to mercury will be replaced on site and integrated into parkland and a green stormwater management system.

At each stage of the public input process, transportation was brought up as one of the stickiest and most important sustainability issues the site faces, especially given that it’s Minnesota’s number one source of carbon emissions. The area isn’t yet directly served by public transit, and the bike and pedestrian connections need improvement, so in the long-term, working with Metro Transit, Ramsey County, and the city will be essential. Installing electric charges will help mitigate the vehicle miles we can’t replace with transit, biking, and walking.

The development’s land use is also projected to help with transportation emissions. By locating entry-level, well-paying light industrial and other jobs on part of the site, the Heights will provide job opportunities within walking distance to new residents and longtime neighbors. It can’t guarantee that the employees will all be local, but it will certainly help in a neighborhood where two-thirds of all workers have a commute of 20 minutes or more.

All in all, the Greater East Side will gain approximately 1,000 units of housing and 1,000 jobs, new parks and other green space, and new connections to Maplewood – all while tackling the climate crisis head on.

What needs to happen

Because this type of sustainable development is unprecedented, it’s going to take funding from various sources to get it underway. Though infrastructure like roads can be funded with sales of the land to interested buyers – who have already begun to emerge – the site will need both public and private support to get it done. The Legislature will need to be convinced that this project is worth investing in.

Whatever the final price tag, this project will be well worth it. I write that not just because I’ll get to enjoy the benefits of the site directly, but because it will be an example, a template for what the world needs to do to confront the climate crisis in a way that protects future generations. What we do on the East Side will matter to the world. It might even help to fix it.

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