Minnesota is heavily reliant on fossil fuels. We don’t need to be.

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

As of this writing, the average price for a gallon of unleaded gas in the state of Minnesota is about $3.92. That’s not the highest price our state has ever experienced – 2013 saw even higher peak prices – but it’s more than a dollar higher than this time last year.

Many people are questioning why this price increase is happening. Certainly, the easing of the COVID-19 pandemic in many places, the rate of inflation, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine have all had effects – though the profiteering  of oil companies themselves can’t be discounted. Whatever the cause, these prices are impacting many Minnesotans, especially those with lower income who may face tough choices about when and where to travel.

Ultimately, that points to a question more important than “why are the gas prices so high?” The question we need to ask for the sake of our economy, the livability of our communities, and our climate is: “why are we at the mercy of gas prices in the first place?”

Policy choices that may lead to gas price fluctuations are heavily scrutinized, but what about the policies that got us here? Most Minnesotans get to most of their destinations in gas-powered cars and trucks, which generate the bulk of the transportation emissions that are Minnesota’s largest source of climate pollution. But is that by choice, or by design?

Minneapolis and St. Paul, for example, once hosted a popular streetcar system that linked vast swaths of the cities together. It was dismantled in the 1950s and replaced with a bus system, which, while still more efficient in terms of fuel and climate than cars, represented a hollowing out of the transit network.

In close proximity, interstate highways were constructed that ran right through the heart of major cities around the country That made it easier to drive from one end of a metropolitan area to the other, but it notoriously obliterated neighborhoods – especially those home to communities of color – like Rondo in Saint Paul. New roads were constructed – and still are to this day – that leave plenty of room for cars but little room or safety for bicycles or pedestrians. Speed limits were set to ease vehicular travel, but have often proven deadly to those trying to cross the road on foot.

On the most basic level, we’ve grown so used to car-dependent infrastructure – deliberately designed to favor the automobile – that it often escapes notice. Shopping mall entrances often lack sidewalks or a safe means to bike to the entrance. Big box stores often have one or two bike racks and upwards of one hundred parking spaces. Vast swathes of valuable land in urban areas are taken up by parking lots and garages. Transit service arrives at inconvenient or infrequent times and may require multiple connections for Minnesotans to get where they want to go – an especially uncomfortable issue in our bitter winters. Amenities like shopping are placed far away and across highways from housing, especially in suburban and exurban areas. Gas stations are in abundance, but electric vehicle rapid charging is only just becoming common.

The result has been that even Minnesotans who might prefer to get around without a car if they tried it are left with few options to do so, even in areas like the Twin Cities, Duluth, and Rochester. Vehicle dependency has overtaken the landscape so completely that even modest steps in favor of clean alternatives are met with cries like “bike favoritism” or “a waste of tax dollars,” ignoring that cars have been subsidized for decades. Fossil fuel companies have been happy to fan the flames, reinvesting their record profits in lobbying and propaganda against clean transportation.

Transportation is the most visible example of this deliberately constructed fossil fuel dependency. The way we weather our winters is another. Most homes in Minnesota are heated by methane – so called “natural” – gas. That’s usually not the fault of the people who live there – many homes in the state are many decades old, making it expensive to replace their gas furnaces with heat pumps or other electric heat. That leaves Minnesotans vulnerable to spikes in the national price of gas, like the reverberations from the Texas winter storm and power crisis last year.

Electric heat pumps are now viable for many Minnesota homes, especially new and well-insulated homes, and can help eliminate this instability. Places like California are banning gas hookups on new homes entirely as a climate action and price management step. Fossil fuel companies, of course, won’t go down without a fight: the fossil gas industry is now investing in media campaigns in favor of gas stoves to try and slow the rapid rise of safer, cleaner, low-carbon induction cooking technology.

The story that rises out of all of this is simple: most Minnesotans have to worry about the price of gasoline and heating gas not because of personal choices, but because of decades of policy choices. Some of us are fortunate enough to be able to take reliable, frequent transit to the places we need to go, or to use a bicycle or electric vehicles, or to upgrade our homes to electric heat, but for many, these steps are far more difficult to reach than driving or living with a gas furnace. In the long run, these “easier” options end up costing us all in traffic, air pollution, and a worsening climate.

The good news is that these policy choices aren’t set in stone. We can chart a different course, and there are examples of how to do so all over the state. MetroTransit is building a Bus Rapid Transit network that will connect thousands of Minnesotans to fast, reliable transit (you can use our action system to speak up in support of these investments.) Duluth Transit Authority is experimenting with using electric buses in a cold climate. Many people are waking up to alternatives to interstate highway dominance in our communities, such as those working to reconnect Rondo in St. Paul or remove a stretch of I-35 in Duluth.

On the gas heating front, projects like the Heights development on St. Paul’s East Side are planning to demonstrate how homes and businesses can be heated entirely through geothermal energy. Legislators have proposed massive investments in energy efficiency to make electric heating more feasible for thousands of homes.

When we choose to invest in alternatives to fossil fuel-centered infrastructure, we provide Minnesotans with freedom: freedom to choose how we get around, how we stay warm, and how we enjoy our neighborhoods. We believe most Minnesotans want to do their part for climate action – let’s make it easy and rewarding for them to do so.

For previous columns, visit mepartnership.org/category/blog/. If you would like to reblog or republish this column, you may do so for free – simply contact the author at matthew@mepartnership.org.

Bipartisan bills would support clean crop development

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

On Wednesday, the Minnesota Senate Agriculture Committee heard testimony on two bills that would help build a growing agricultural revolution on Minnesota farmland by supporting research, development, and markets for new, regenerative crops. These bills have bipartisan support – a testament to their benefits to the evolving agricultural landscape in Minnesota, and to years of advocacy by MEP and allies for this water- and climate-friendly work.

Professor Don Wyse testifies on behalf of Forever Green

The first bill, SF 3711, would fully fund the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative (FGI). As Professor Don Wyse explained to the committee, FGI conducts scientific research and development efforts on crops like Kernza®, hazelnuts, and oilseeds like pennycress and winter camelina. MEP has been a longtime supporter of Forever Green, recently helping to organize a field tour of the Initiative’s research sites on the UMN St. Paul campus.

FGI’s crops have numerous environmental advantages over traditional monocropping of corn and soybeans, though some of them can also be integrated into the existing system. Some of these crops, such as Kernza, develop deep root systems that help prevent nutrient pollution from infiltrating groundwater and making people sick. Others provide habitat for pollinators and other wildlife. Some are perennials, protecting soil all year round, while others like winter camelina are annual crops that can protect soil during the winter and very early spring when other crops aren’t growing. All of them help retain carbon and water in the soil, all of them can grow in Minnesota, and importantly, all of them have viable or developing commercial uses.

Addressing that commercialization step is where SF 3271 comes into play. It’s another bipartisan bill that would support the development of supply chains and markets for these crops. While their applications are numerous, including food, fuel, and bioplastics, we need to build up these infrastructure components just as we did for crops like corn and soybeans, allowing farmers to reap the benefits of renewable agriculture.

Fortunately, it’s not just environmental groups like MEP leading the way on these positive developments. The committee heard testimony in favor of SF 3711 from General Mills scientist Dr. Steven Rosenzweig and Windom Mayor Dominic Jones. “I see this Kernza grass, for instance, as a very positive and efficient and profitable way that we can stop the nutrient (pollution) before it gets to our aquifers,” said Jones.

Testifiers in favor of the commercialization investments in SF 3271 included representatives from the Minnesota Farmers Union, Albert Lea Seed, and PURIS Foods. Anne Schwagerl, Vice President of the Farmers Union, said, “This bill in front of you…is the rare opportunity to respond to multiple challenges all at once. With your support, we can create new opportunities not only for farmers, but even more so for entrepreneurs and businesses as well.”

The fact that Minnesota organizations, businesses, and political leaders are increasingly getting behind this new generation of crops is a good sign for Minnesota farmers, rural communities, and the environment in which we live. That broad support has come from years of research, advocacy, and the fact that it simply makes sense for Minnesota. University of Minnesota alumnus Norman Borlaug helped spur the 1950s Green Revolution that massively increased crop production around the world. Now, Minnesota’s flagship university is sowing the seeds for a new Green Revolution to benefit both people and the planet.

For previous columns, visit mepartnership.org/category/blog/. If you would like to reblog or republish this column, you may do so for free – simply contact the author at matthew@mepartnership.org.

MEP releases 2022 Briefing Book

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

MEP is proud to announce the publication of our 2022 Briefing Book, Blueprint for our Future. This book identifies the major environmental threats Minnesota faces, the work already being done, and solutions that MEP’s coalition members have put forward.

This project has been driven by MEP’s outgoing Advocacy Director, Sara Wolff, who played a vital role in Minnesota’s environmental community during her more than five years with MEP. It was also made possible by design contractor Connie Lanphear and the many members of our community who provided photos.

The Briefing Book begins by naming the problem: Minnesota is at risk of climate disasters, new threats to our health and well-being, and the degradation of our lands and waters. These are not problems that should take us by surprise: they are the result of years of treating corporate interests as more important than people and of inadequate action to end our economic addiction to fossil fuels. In the book, we note that for the problems we face, half-solutions are not solutions at all. False promises like “clean coal,” methane fuel that is called “renewable,” but isn’t sustainable, expanding highways, or propping up corn-based ethanol will not cut emissions at the pace or scale we need.

But we have ways forward – hence the Blueprint. We can change our regulatory practices and agency attitudes so that climate disasters like Line 3 can be prevented and shut down. We can invest in real climate solutions like sustainable land use, renewable energy, reduction and electrification of vehicle miles traveled, and weatherization for buildings all over the state. These aren’t pie-in-the-sky ideas, and the main side effect of achieving them will be that Minnesota communities will be healthier, safer, and more comfortable to live in.

Minnesota is a state known for our clean waters and Great Outdoors, and there’s no reason that we can’t live up to that image. We can protect thousands of Minnesotans as well as eagles and other animals from lead poisoning. We can reinvest in protecting and restoring the ecosystems we enjoy and depend on. We can shift from an economy where waste fills our land and incinerators pollute our communities to one where resources are conserved, reused, and recycled.

We encourage our subscribers to take a look inside the briefing book and share it widely. Science has given us the blueprints for what we need to win a beautiful future. It’s up to all of us to make sure Minnesota achieves this vision.

Bills would continue efforts to reduce PFAS exposure

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

On Thursday, February 24th, the Minnesota House Environment and Natural Resources Committee heard two promising bills that would help to limit the exposure of Minnesotans to PFAS, a class of “forever chemicals” that don’t break down naturally in the environment and have a troubling track record of causing health problems. These bills are part of a continuation of bipartisan legislative efforts to protect Minnesotans from the types of PFAS linked to increased risk of various medical conditions.

PFAS chemicals have become disturbingly common in our environment, in our homes, and in our bodies. Most people in the United States have at least some level of PFOS, a PFAS subcategory, in their blood, though thankfully concentrations have decreased over time. Exposure to these substances, common in products like anti-stick cookware, firefighting foam, and stain repellants, can contribute to cancers, kidney disease, ADHD, and other life changing conditions.

The eastern Twin Cities Metro area around Oakdale and Cottage Grove is an example of a community harmed by heightened PFAS in their groundwater from 3M’s manufacturing and waste sites. Other communities like Bemidji have experienced similar problems, costly to municipal budgets and public health. As we wrote last June, the Minnesota Department of Health has advised Minnesotans to be more careful about eating panfish due to bioaccumulation of PFOS in those species.

Fortunately, many lawmakers are recognizing these dangers and supporting action to reduce them. Last year, the Legislature passed a ban on PFAS in food packaging. And as the regulatory winds have changed, companies have sought alternatives to PFAS. But the new bills at the Capitol this year would guarantee that Minnesotans are protected from PFAS in key sources.

In Thursday’s hearing, the Environment Committee discussed HF 3571, which would ban PFAS from all new juvenile products – items intended for infants and young children like cribs, diapers, and high chairs. As of this writing, that bill does not yet have a Senate companion. Committee members also covered HF 3180/SF 3307, which would ban PFAS in home furnishing like carpets and upholstery. Both bills will next be considered by the House Commerce Committee.

An additional bill on its way to the Commerce Committee, HF 2952/SF 3441, would ban the use of PFAS in ski wax, one of the most visible paths for these chemicals to directly enter the environment. As MEP’s Andrew Slade said on Twitter, “Old BAD idea: smear toxic PFAS onto cross country skis of our state’s youth so they can go a tiny bit faster in races… New GREAT idea: ban PFAS in ski wax in MN.”

The bipartisan committee votes to move PFAS legislation forward, and the fact that a food packaging ban has already been enacted, are positive signs for the path of these bills. Opponents aligned with chemical industry groups have tried to muddy the waters by suggesting that a state ban would create regulatory confusion, and these objections may create obstacles at the Capitol. But the problems suffered by places like Oakdale and Bemidji should show us that Minnesotans can’t wait around for a corporate-friendly solution – we need to cut off the flow of PFAS into our waters, lands, and bodies as quickly as possible.

For previous columns, visit mepartnership.org/category/blog/. If you would like to reblog or republish this column, you may do so for free – simply contact the author at matthew@mepartnership.org.

Federal plan would accelerate Great Lakes cleanups

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

This week, President Joe Biden and EPA Administrator Michael Regan announced a plan to use most of a $1 billion investment in the Great Lakes from the Infrastructure and Jobs Act to clean up polluted areas. These investments around the world’s greatest freshwater resource will improve ecosystems, support jobs, and deliver tangible local benefits for communities from New York to Minnesota.

The plan will allow the EPA to build on continuing efforts to restore Areas of Concern (AOCs), some of the sites most impacted across the region. These efforts were kickstarted with the implementation of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) in 2010, and have continued to make progress over the last decade. Funding for the GLRI has passed with bipartisan support every year since its inception, resulting in $3.8 billion in funding between 2010 and 2021.

With the help of the new infrastructure funds, restoration work on most of the 25 AOCs are projected to be complete by 2030. That includes Minnesota’s own AOC: the St. Louis River in the Duluth-Superior area.

The St. Louis River is the largest tributary of Lake Superior and is a vital resource for the Twin Ports, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and other nearby communities. Over decades, it’s been significantly degraded by industrial activities. Levels of mercury are especially problematic, and along with chemicals, this contamination has resulted in reductions in fishing, wildlife habitat, and waterfront uses. (MEP commissioned a report on just how bad the mercury situation in the river has gotten.)

As a large river, the St. Louis River presents challenges to restoration, and the EPA has established a series of goals and action steps to get it done. Sediment at the bottom of the riverbed must be dredged, then covered with a clean layer of sand. Shoals, islands, and other coastal features must be rebuilt to provide habitat for wildlife and protect the shoreline. Significant progress has been made already, but the new infrastructure funds will help to accelerate the work. The EPA estimates that management actions to restore the area will be complete by the middle of the decade, and that the AOC will be removed from the list by 2030.

That’s good news for aquatic ecosystems and the people who harvest food from them. It’s also great for the local economy. A 2018 study by the Great Lakes Commission calculated that every dollar spent on Great Lakes Restoration generates more than three times as much in economic activity. In the case of Duluth, these restoration investments have led to highly visible improvements in tourism, residential development, recreation, and livability.

These investments have been a major focus of MEP’s advocacy since the GLRI’s inception. Working closely with partners like Clean Water Action, have regularly sent local delegations to to DC and worked with Minnesota’s representatives to make the case for this restoration work and hosted tours in the areas affected. These congressional connections have consistently paid off, and we especially thank U.S. Senators Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar and Representative Betty McCollum for championing the new funds for the Great LAkes.

At a time when the Great Lakes face emerging threats including potential sulfide ore mining, oil pipelines like Line 3 and Line 5, and climate change, it’s more important than ever that we invest in protecting and restoring these resources. Working with our partners, state leaders, and Minnesotans who live near our greatest lake, MEP will continue advocating for our North Shore and the health of our waters.

For previous columns, visit mepartnership.org/category/blog/. If you would like to reblog or republish this column, you may do so for free – simply contact the author at matthew@mepartnership.org.

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.

For previous columns, visit mepartnership.org/category/blog/. If you would like to reblog or republish this column, you may do so for free – simply contact the author at matthew@mepartnership.org.

Legislature may finally get the lead out of Minnesota water and wildlife

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Lead poisoning is one of the oldest medical conditions known to humankind. It’s a virtually irreversible, permanent disease caused by exposure to lead through ingestion or breathing. There is no safe level of lead, and it’s especially dangerous to children. Once inside the body, lead settles in bones and nerve tissue, causing developmental and behavioral issues, organ damage, pain, seizures, and in severe cases, death.

It’s heartbreaking that Minnesota still sees at least 700 children test positive for lead exposure every year, and it’s especially frustrating that lead was used in this country for so long in so many unsafe ways – and still is today. Lead paint – a key source of childhood exposure – wasn’t banned until the 1970s. Lead wasn’t banned from use in new water pipes until 1986. And it was still allowed in gasoline for cars – a practice that devastated entire generations of people – in the United States up until the mid-90s. Yet, use of lead it is still allowed in other applications, like ammunition for hunting and tackle for fishing.

Lead ammunition and tackle are devastating to wildlife. The Humane Society estimates that between 10 and 20 million birds and other animals die from lead they injest from the remains of hunted animals. To focus on just one species as an example, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources estimates that 40% of Minnesota trumpeter swan deaths are from lead poisoning. In just one instance in March 2019, 10 trumpeter swans died at Sucker Lake in Vadnais Heights from lead.

Now, in 2022, Minnesota has a chance at enormous progress on protecting people and wildlife from lead exposure. Bills introduced in the Legislature to remove lead from water infrastructure, hunting, and fishing have a real chance at becoming law. MEP Great Lakes Program Director Andrew Slade testified in a Minnesota House Preventive Health Division hearing on these issues and bills earlier this week. These lifesaving efforts are a long time coming.

Water pipes are an invisible source of the toxin

Lead was used in water pipes in the United States for most of our country’s history, giving it plenty of time to become established in plumbing across America. Researchers noticed it caused health problems in the 1850s. Now, more than 15 million Americans still use drinking water that comes through lead service lines from the street. Many of them live in Minnesota’s oldest major cities, including Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth.

Duluth was the focus of MEP’s own efforts to investigate this threat. Working with community partners, we tested drinking water in 52 homes in Duluth for lead and helped secure filters for families exposed, building support for wider progress on the issue. The City of Duluth has since begun their own similar efforts to address the problem – an all-too common one in Rust Belt cities.

Testing, filtration, and simply running tap water for a couple of minutes each morning to remove lead are among the partial solutions for individual families, but they aren’t a complete fix – and many people are unaware that their homes connect to lead service lines. The only permanent, fully effective solution is to remove and replace the lead pipes that bring water into homes.

For an individual family, that’s an expensive process, and financing options are limited. Last year’s federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will provide significant funding to tackle the problem, and Minnesota legislators have introduced legislation – HF 2650 and SF 2531 – that would allow our state to take the lead in removing these water supply lines within ten years.

This is an investment that’s been a long time coming in Minnesota, and there’s no reason to delay it any longer. Every year we continue to wait means more people harmed or permanently disabled by lead exposure, causing human tragedy and significant health costs. Lead service line replacement is, in the long term, one of the most affordable things we can do to make Minnesotans healthier and safer.

Lead fragments are devastating bird species

Meanwhile, Minnesota’s landscape is riddled with its own lead problem. Fragments of lead shot from hunting and lead fishing lures can be found throughout the state. That’s especially hazardous for scavenging birds like bald eagles, which pick through the remains of deer that have been shot and cleaned, as well as the remains of fish. UMN Raptor Center Executive Director Victoria Hall says that of her center’s patients, “85-90% of all bald eagles admitted have some level of lead in their blood.” Other birds that use gizzard stones to process food can mistake lead waste for pebbles.

Hunters and anglers and their families run similar risks. Seth Moore, Director of Biology and Environment for the Grand Portage Band of Chippewa testified that the meat from animals harvested with lead ammunition can often contain hidden lead fragments, small enough to escape notice but large enough to harm people who consume them. Moore and his office are helping to encourage tribal members to use copper bullets instead. “The industry has done a very good job of replicating what lead ammunition can do,” Moore said.

The solution is a simple one: requiring non-toxic ammunition and tackle, rather than lead, be used in Minnesota. A bill, HF 2556 / SF 2545, would enact the effective requirement for lead ammunition, while HF 157 / SF 247 would address lead tackle. As Dale Gentry, Conservation Director of Audubon Minnesota reported to the House hearing, “…banning lead can lead to measurable, population-level decreases in blood lead levels, as was found on black ducks in New Jersey.” 

The bills’ path forward

MEP and our partners will continue to push lead removal and banning as one of our top efforts during this legislative session. These efforts to get the lead out – just like the U.S. bans on lead in gasoline and paint – are long overdue, and the decisions of the past will continue to haunt us until we get the lead out, all of it. Today, we have the chance to save untold numbers of children, families, and wildlife from this toxin.

What you can do: Use our action system to contact your Legislators and ask them to making getting the lead out a priority at the Capitol.

MN momentum is for clean water, not sulfide mines

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

At times, it has seemed like Minnesota would soon see copper-nickel sulfide mining projects breaking ground near our most vulnerable waters, destroying climate-critical wetlands and threatening communities and ecosystems with centuries of pollution. This week is not one of those times.

Clean water advocates scored a tremendous victory this week as the federal Department of the Interior canceled federal mineral leases held by Twin Metals, which has proposed a copper-nickel sulfide mine near Ely in the Boundary Waters watershed. This cancellation restores an Obama Administration decision not to renew the leases that was itself reversed by the Trump Administration, and likely means that Twin Metals has been stopped in its tracks.

Meanwhile, Minnesota’s other major sulfide mining project saw yet another one of its permits overturned in court. Environmental and tribal advocates scored a partial victory by sending PolyMet’s water pollution permit back to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) for a do-over. Similar legal decisions have continued to delay other state PolyMet permits on wetland destruction, air quality, and other issues. Time and again, advocates have proven that neither PolyMet nor state agencies have conducted an adequate process to protect the waters downstream in the Lake Superior watershed.

The backers of this new type of uniquely hazardous type of mining in Minnesota have plenty of financial resources to continue throwing at this fight. But they’re in the minority: most Minnesotans agree that it’s time to move on from PolyMet, and a strong majority oppose any new mines near the Boundary Waters.

Nor do the scientific facts support the project. No sulfide mine in the United States has ever operated and been closed without significant pollution to the surrounding environment. PolyMet’s own plans admit that its waste storage would require decades or centuries of maintenance to prevent a catastrophic spill that could devastate downstream communities, the St. Louis River and Lake Superior watershed.

Public opinion and sound science haven’t yet overridden the tired habit in regulatory agencies to treat industries as their customers and their projects as inevitabilities. But the tides are turning, and the public interest may just have a real chance for victory.

Twin Metals could be finished

It’s hard to overstate how important the cancellation of Twin Metals’ mineral leases is for the fate of the project and similar proposals near the Boundary Waters. Coupled with a proposed ban on sulfide ore mining on federal lands in the watershed, it’s hard to see how this problem-riddled industry can keep moving. Congressional leaders like Representative Betty McCollum are working to enact permanent Boundary Waters protections at the federal level. A similar bill addressing state lands was introduced last year by Representative Kelly Morrison and Senator Steve Cwodzinski.

Meanwhile, Twin Metals has vowed to fight the Biden Administration’s decision, and its backers have cast the lease cancellation as a “political” move – a descriptor that apparently didn’t apply in 2019 when the Trump Administration did the reverse. But if trends continue the way they are, they’ll continue to learn that they aren’t entitled to endanger the Boundary Waters, no matter how much greenwashing they carry on with.

Minnesotans continue standing against PolyMet

PolyMet presents similar dangers as Twin Metals, but is further along in its process and has won more support from state leaders, including Governor Walz. Throughout the permitting of the mine, it’s been frustrating but unsurprising to watch the DNR and MPCA continue to shape the process favorably toward PolyMet, even suppressing public input and EPA concerns. The agencies have treated the mine’s unprecedented environmental hazards as boxes to check, not as reasons to halt the project.

Minnesotans aren’t simply accepting the agencies’ timidity. Thousands of Minnesotans, as well as organizations like MEP and allies around the country, are calling on Governor Walz to Move on from PolyMet. Many even showed up to the Capitol on Tuesday (possibly the coldest day of this winter) to help deliver the petition to the Governor.

On Wednesday, a coalition of environmental groups and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa filed suits challenging the federal land swap that paved the way for PolyMet. A similar lawsuit was dismissed three years ago, but the coalition led by MEP member Center for Biological Diversity filed once again, arguing that new wildlife developments covered by the Endangered Species Act prove increased danger from the mine. If the land exchange is overturned, it could be a similarly crushing blow to PolyMet as the lease cancellation is for Twin Metals.

The road ahead

As part of another strategy moving forward to protect our water and communities from all sulfide mining, more and more lawmakers are also getting behind a Prove It First law for Minnesota. This would require any company attempting to build a sulfide mine in Minnesota to prove that a similar mine has operated for ten years and closed for ten years elsewhere in the United States without causing pollution. A similar law was on the books in Wisconsin for almost two decades. The bill’s momentum and widespread support can result in additional protections for Minnesota waters.

It’s true that we’re nowhere near the end of the sulfide mining debate in Minnesota. Mining companies will continue to claim, disingenuously, that their wetland-destroying mines are needed to fight climate change. PolyMet will continue using the processes and institutions designed to regulate it to its advantage. If any sulfide mine is built in Minnesota, it could pave the way for more, leading to compounded environmental problems.

But we’ve found that the reason these mines still haven’t been built after years of process, the reason that their backers continue to greenwash, is that Minnesotans value our water, air, and land. The more that people learn the dirty details of these mines, the less likely they are to support them. With that knowledge in mind, the legal advocates, tribal leaders, independent scientists, and volunteers engaged in this fight have never given up. That persistence is what wins victories like the ones we saw this week.

Legislative plans would be a big boost for Minnesota climate action

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Earlier this week, the Minnesota House Climate Action Caucus unveiled its 2022 Minnesota Climate Action Plan. This plan consists of a series of proposals that would invest in many different pieces of the climate and energy landscape in Minnesota. Taken together, the plan would be an impressive set of climate actions for Minnesota.

MEP fully supports these proposals, in line with our 2022 Legislative Priorities. While the split Legislature poses a challenge to passing the full package, the state’s budget surplus and evident needs for climate action and energy efficiency mean that there’s no excuse not to move forward.

In the same week as the announcement of the Climate Action Plan, Governor Walz has released a $2.7 capital investment proposal, the 2022 Local Jobs and Projects Plan. This plan, mostly paid for with bonding, includes more than $262 million in environmental projects, as well as investments in areas including transportation and water infrastructure. It’s a major component of the Governor’s budget proposals that are being released in January, and which will be part of the negotiations between the Governor and the two houses.

These proposals would help tackle the largest buckets of emissions that are contributing to climate pollution in Minnesota. While electricity largely continues to get cleaner and cleaner, other categories, especially transportation and land use, are not improving nearly as quickly. All of these sectors must make significant strides to meet the 45% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said must be achieved worldwide by 2030 to stave off the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

Transportation is the largest source of Minnesota’s carbon emissions, and most of these emissions come from light trucks and cars. That’s partly a product of how Minnesota communities were built up to rely on personal vehicles and highways rather than transit and nearby amenities. Fortunately, the Climate Action Plan includes money for at least four bus rapid transit (BRT) lines – among the most accessible and efficient forms of transit in Minnesota – as well as money to expand and electrify transit, improve biking and walking infrastructure, and make it easier to charge electric vehicles throughout the state.

Agriculture and land use is the second major bucket of emissions, and the Climate Action Plan addresses these by focusing on solutions that MEP and our members have advocated for years. The plan invests heavily in regenerative agricultural practices and crops that help build soil and benefit the climate, rather than harming it. These practices can benefit farmers and Minnesota’s economy. Reforestation and prairie restoration are also key pieces to make Minnesota’s land a better carbon sink.

Buildings are another stubborn source of carbon emissions, but one of the most financially efficient ways to cut carbon is…efficiency. A large portion of the plan’s investments focus on weatherization – making buildings like schools, homes, and commercial spaces more livable and less prone to high heating, cooling, and electricity costs. This is a key issue for MEP, and a priority for groups like teachers who have seen schools struggling in heat waves and cold snaps alike. The plan also targets waste and recycling for improvements, aiming to reduce the volume of trash that ends up in landfills and incinerators.

While Minnesota’s electricity mix is getting cleaner as wind and solar spread, more state support is needed to reach fully clean power. The plan supports clean energy on public infrastructure, renewables throughout Greater Minnesota, and innovation on new clean electricity technologies.

These are all projects that will improve Minnesotans’ quality of life significantly. Reduced air and water pollution, lower energy costs, more walkable streets, and greener communities are benefits that all Minnesotans can enjoy.

The challenge will be in passing this package, given the debate on whether to pass tax cuts or invest in the future. But we’ve been here before. Two years ago, MEP and our allies helped advocate for the largest investment in water infrastructure in Minnesota’s history. With climate change more visible than ever and the solutions more promising and certain, this is our moment to get this done.

How you can help: Use our action alert system to contact your lawmakers and Governor Walz and ask them to support the Climate Action Plan. You can use our sample message, or customize it to fit your views.

Caucusing is two weeks way – here’s what you need to know

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Minnesotans are well known for doing some things a little differently from much of the rest of the nation; among them are the hot dish tradition, Duck Duck Grey Duck, and the caucus system, which is used by a handful of other states. Every two years, our state’s major political parties use multilevel caucuses and conventions to endorse candidates, shape their platforms, and allow supporters to connect with their like-minded neighbors. This year, precinct caucuses – the first step on the ladder – will take place on February 1st at 7:00 PM.

All Minnesotans who will be eligible voters by the next general election are entitled to caucus for the party that most closely aligns with their values. Doing so is a great way to influence which candidates are endorsed and what policies the parties will pursue. We ask our supporters to caucus to help make sure that our climate and natural world are top of mind for Minnesota’s political leaders. MEP has put together a Caucus Hub for the information you need to participate.

With the ongoing pandemic, it may not be safe for all Minnesotans to participate in person, even with masking. Fortunately, some parties may offer the opportunity to submit a form and platform resolutions by mail or email. As of this writing, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party has announced that local party units – usually the State Senate District or County level – may choose to hold virtual precinct caucuses.

MEP is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and does not advocate for participating in any particular party, but we do believe that all parties should hear about environmental concerns from their supporters. That can be accomplished by introducing platform resolutions. Caucus-goers can introduce these resolutions at the precinct level, where they’ll be voted on by fellow attendees from that precinct. If passed, they’ll move up to the next level, usually the Senate District or County Convention, and be voted on again, then up to the Congressional District level, then to the State Convention. Generally speaking, resolutions must have support in multiple places to have a chance at being included in the party’s platform.

The process may seem a little daunting, but you don’t have to be an issue expert to introduce and pass a resolution – just a concerned citizen who cares about your values and can explain why they matter. You don’t even have to write the resolution yourself: MEP has put together a Resolutions Hub for examples of resolutions you can bring to your local precinct or submit online. Submitting a resolution that an organization is promoting gives it the best chance of passing, as it is likely that other precincts in other communities will be passing the same wording.

For example, MEP member Land Stewardship Project is promoting the following resolution:

“The [insert party name here] prioritizes establishing and deeply investing in a comprehensive soil health program to provide accessible, motivating grants and direct payments to farmers to establish and sustain soil-healthy practices; provide education, technical assistance, and research around soil-healthy practices to farmers; and set a statewide goal to reach 5.75 million acres of farmland in soil-healthy practices by 2030, 11.5 million acres by 2035, and 23 million acres by 2040.”

A supporter of this resolution can introduce it at their precinct caucus, where it will be voted on. The introducer can use LSP’s website to learn more about soil health and why it’s important, in case they need to persuade their neighbors to vote for it. If passed, it will then need to get sufficient support at the next level up to continue moving on, and must do so in multiple places.

MEP’s Caucus and Resolution hubs are not intended to be exhaustive, but if you have a resource or a resolution you’d like to share, let us know! MEP believes that the better informed Minnesotans are, the more we take ownership of our democratic process, and the more our leaders hear that our issues are a priority, the better off our climate and environment will be.