Fond du Lac Band, backed by EPA, may protect its waters with halt to PolyMet wetland permit

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Last week, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa achieved a major and unprecedented win in their effort to protect their lands and waters from sulfide mining pollution. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it agreed with the northeastern Minnesota tribe that the Army Corps of Engineers should not reinstate the suspended 404 wetland destruction permit for the planned PolyMet mine because its downstream pollution would violate Fond du Lac’s pollution standards.

While the EPA can only advise, and not control, the Army Corps’ decision, the fact that the agency sided with Fond du Lac makes it far more likely that the Army Corps will refuse to reinstate the 404 permit. The original permit was previously suspended after Fond du Lac sued the Army Corps and EPA, successfully arguing that tribal rights had been violated.

As the Army Corps holds hearings and gathers information to inform its decision on the permit, Fond du Lac’s rights to clean water and food sources in the St. Louis River watershed will weigh heavily. Independent scientists and community members largely agree that PolyMet’s mine would release sulfate pollution downstream, causing mercury already in the watershed to become a more rampant threat to the health of communities and wildlife.

PolyMet is already trying to spin the process in the media as a minor setback, arguing that the company would leave the St. Louis River cleaner than it found it. But despite the company’s efforts to obscure the science, the momentum is clearly on the side of Fond du Lac, Lake Superior, and other downstream communities.

The fight against PolyMet pollution

For years, the Fond du Lac Band and environmental groups like MEP have been fighting for a clean St. Louis River and against the climate disaster resulting from wetland destruction on multiple fronts. We’ve opposed legislation that would amount to a giveaway to PolyMet, and testified to state and federal agencies against granting the mine permits. Several MEP member groups, working with Fond du Lac, have successfully argued in court for suspending the permit to mine as well as permits related to water and water pollution at various points in the process.

Now, our focus is on standing in support of Fond du Lac’s objection to the wetland destruction permit. On Thursday night, MEP Great Lakes Program Director Andrew Slade testified at an Army Corps hearing regarding the permit, urging the Army Corps to recognize the threat that increased mercury exposure presents to the St. Louis River and to the health of surrounding communities. In his testimony, he spoke about the efforts of MEP’s Mining Cluster to research the existing mercury problem, including publishing a report on the issue.

Slade referenced research showing that babies born around Lake Superior face prevalent mercury exposure, with especially high exposure in Indigenous communities like the Fond du Lac Band. The bulk of this mercury is caused by the mining industry, and PolyMet would be no exception. “The impact of mercury contamination from mines is a clear issue of environmental injustice,” said Slade.

Mining interests testified at the hearing as well, mostly working to deny or muddy the waters around the clear science that says the PolyMet will cause real harm to downstream communities. Scott Beauchamp, Policy Director for Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, tweeted that “Pretty telling that everyone speaking on behalf of #PolyMet at this hearing so far has been an industry rep or lobbyist.” But those against the permit, he said, were mostly ordinary citizens and scientists.

As the Army Corps and the other processes around PolyMet continue, MEP and allies will continue to support a decision that respects and protects the health of Fond du Lac and Lake Superior communities. We know that what happens upstream makes its way downstream. For this and many other reasons, this mine isn’t right for Minnesota

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New Blue Line route is an environmental justice win

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Last week, Hennepin County and the Metropolitan Council announced their new preferred route for the Blue Line light rail extension, a major transit project that would connect communities in North Minneapolis, Crystal, Robbinsdale, and Brooklyn Park with the existing Blue Line. This particular route is a significant victory for some of the state’s most diverse communities, who rely on public transit to get to work and run errands, and would greatly benefit from Blue Line access. A previous route would have skipped North Minneapolis, while the new map would run along Broadway Avenue through the heart of the community.

The Blue Line currently connects downtown and south Minneapolis with MSP airport and the Mall of America, and links with the Green Line between Minneapolis and St. Paul. Together, the lines had a ridership of over 10 million in 2021 – a number that has been depressed by COVID-19 but has increased steadily since 2020. These lines have an added benefit of  connecting to numerous bus lines, including Bus Rapid Transit routes. 

When constructed, the project would link thousands of Minnesotans along this network with frequent, affordable and more reliable service. By giving Minnesotans a non-car option to get around, it will help remove cars from the road and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This can help reduce air pollution and protect the health of communities disproportionately affected by that pollution, as well as reduce deaths from auto collisions, which were at their highest level since 2007 last year.

This extension has been long awaited. Initial planning began more than twelve years ago, and has faced hurdles that have lengthened the wait, especially the dispute about using land owned by the BNSF railway. Meanwhile, the Green Line extension that will run from downtown Minneapolis through its southwestern suburbs to Eden Prairie, is far closer to completion, though it is contending with cost overruns and other issues.

As MEP wrote last year, the wait on the Blue Line extension is emblematic of the transportation disparities that fall along the same lines as so many other disparities in Minnesota. The largest of the corridor’s communities – Brooklyn Park and North Minneapolis – have high concentrations of people of color, and they host or are adjacent to highly-traveled segments of I-94 and industrial sites. Not coincidentally, Minnesota’s communities of color are highly at risk of air pollution above health guidelines. Extensions for the Green Line and the Blue Line are both excellent steps for Minnesota’s climate, health and quality of life, but it is troubling that the extension that would most benefit diverse communities economically, environmentally and from a public health perspective is progressing so much more slowly than the line proceeding through largely white and affluent suburbs.

Encouragingly, Metro Transit has explicitly pledged to include environmental justice in its planning and analysis. This includes anti-displacement work to help prevent community members’ lives and livelihoods from being upended by development. The agency has also made its environmental analysis available and developed plans to minimize the impact of construction and operation of the rail line.

With generally strong local support, the main challenge now facing the extension is clearing funding hurdles. Some in the legislature have expressed opposition to funding light rail given the significant construction costs. But given the increasingly urgent need – and widespread support – for Minnesota to reduce our largest sources of carbon emissions and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, the case for the Blue Line extension is stronger than ever. It runs on electricity, generates no air pollution at the train, and helps connect people and jobs safely and quickly.

As project leaders and elected officials have said, the Blue Line extension is about justice – about reinvesting in communities that have been historically neglected in our state. We at MEP hope to see this project continue to move forward and will work with our partners to build support for this important investment in public transit.

MetroTransit is accepting comments on the Blue Line extension route online and at meetings through May 18. 

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As Legislature returns, Senate environment bill is riddled with issues

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Tomorrow, the Minnesota Legislature will return from the Easter/Passover break and return to the work of crafting spending and policy omnibus bills. These large bills package provisions from numerous smaller proposals to eventually be negotiated between the House and the Senate. If all goes smoothly, deals will be made by the session’s end in late May – if not, Minnesota many worthwhile items may be left on the “cutting room” floor. 

The Senate has released a few of its omnibus bills and is expected to consider them on the floor when the members return. MEP will be weighing in on these bills, some of which contain great steps forward for our environment and people. The Environment and Natural Resources omnibus has our attention for more negative reasons – if passed, it would result in steps backward and make it harder for Minnesotans to participate in the environmental review process.

While the bill contains some beneficial spending measures, it’s missing critical pieces from Governor Walz’s supplemental budget proposal despite the state’s historic budget surplus. At a time when waste and pollution are growing into critical threats to our health and well-being, the bill leaves out $19 million for waste prevention, reduction, and recycling. And at a time when Minnesota’s lands are more important than ever to our climate efforts, the bill leaves out $10 million for enhancing carbon-sequestering grasslands and wetlands and $17 million for soil healthy practices that would improve Minnesota’s land and water.

Then there are the policy problems. As has been the case all too frequently in recent sessions, the bill would skew Minnesota’s environmental permitting rules and processes to favor polluting industries, especially when it comes to water.

A returning provision that has appeared in previous years is a proposed 16-year holiday for businesses to avoid complying with new water quality standards as long as they have recently constructed or updated a water treatment facility. Investing in water treatment should be a necessary condition for business, not a get-out-of-protection free card. The bill also reduces the number of waters that agencies could protect, limits how they can measure whether a water use is actually sustainable, and makes it more difficult for the DNR to review water use permits that may need updating.

Then there are blatant handouts to certain industries that would fly in the face of the public interest. One provision seems to assume that all mining proposals are permittable under the law and must be permitted by state agencies within a certain time period, essentially changing the state’s decisions from “Yes, no, or Need More Information,” to “Yes, or Faster Yes.” Another provision would allow chemical plastic facilities that burn plastic for fuel to avoid rules governing solid waste. And one provision would hamstring the state’s efforts to implement air quality standards, putting thousands of Minnesotans at greater risk of air pollution while only benefitting sectors that cause it.

Some of the provisions MEP and our members most strongly oppose address the environmental review processes, taking them ever further out of the hands of the public. One provision would prevent agencies from publishing any guidance on environmental laws by defining that guidance as a form of “unadopted rules” that can’t be enforced. There’s also a gag rule in the bill that would prevent the DNR from providing explanations of any water management plan under development, preventing public oversight.

And one of the most harmful of these provisions is a proposal to limit petitions for environmental review to residents of the county or adjacent counties where a project is proposed. For example, imagine an industrial plant were to be proposed along the banks of the Minnesota River on the eastern edge of Redwood County. Minnesotans living in Redwood or the counties immediately bordering it could petition for an environmental review, but residents of Nicollet County, only fifteen or so miles downriver, could not. Pollution doesn’t respect county lines – what we put into the water goes downstream, and what we put into the air goes downwind. 

These and other provisions would harm Minnesota’s resources and democratic process at a time when both are under threat. MEP will be sending a letter to the Minnesota Senate asking them to amend this bill to remove harmful provisions and we will continue to work with our partners to ensure Minnesota’s people and environment are protected as negotiations between the Senate, the House, and the Governor draw near. 

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Legislature may let Minnesotans renew, enhance Environment Trust Fund amendment through 2050

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

In 2024, one of Minnesota’s most popular constitutional amendments is scheduled toexpire. Not the amendment to abolish the office of State Treasurer, or the amendment to allow creation of a Court of Appeals, but the highly visible amendment that dedicates state lottery dollars to the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund (ENRTF). 

The ENRTF is a uniquely Minnesotan idea, putting money from our state lottery proceeds toward research and restoration projects for our Great Outdoors. The projects it supports are as varied as the state’s natural landscape. Using ENRTF dollars, agencies and organizations have conducted vital climate research, restored fish and wildlife habitat, created new trails and access to nature, and helped protect drinking water resources. ENRTF projects are visible around the state, and many local economies have benefitted from these investments.

Part of the reason that the ENRTF has been so successful and sustainable is that it was created by and for the people of Minnesota. In 1990, Minnesotans voted in a 3-1 landslide for the constitutional amendment that dedicated 40% of proceeds from the state lottery “for the public purpose of protection, conservation, preservation, and enhancement of the state’s air, water, land, fish, wildlife, and other natural resources.” The original constitutional dedication of those lottery dollars only extended until the year 2001, but in 1998, Minnesotans voted – again, in a landslide – to continue dedicating 40% of the proceeds until 2024.

These broad margins point to just how much Minnesotans care about our natural spaces, as well as how hard supporters have worked for it. MEP and our members and allies have made great efforts to maintain and build on the Trust Fund.

We’ve also had to make unprecedented efforts to protect it from improper and unsustainable raids. In 2018, the Minnesota Legislature passed a bill that appropriated ENRTF money for wastewater infrastructure through appropriation bonds, which are more costly to the state than ordinary, general-obligation bonds.

MEP supports investments in wastewater systems, but the ENRTF was never intended to be used for that kind of infrastructure spending – that’s what the state’s general fund dollars are for. Opening the door to such a raid could have put the Trust Fund’s future on shaky ground, and left many worthy projects unfunded.

Working with our partners, MEP joined in a lawsuit for the first time in our history, seeking to stop the state from issuing the bonds and to reverse the raid on the Trust Fund. Thankfully, we were successful – the raid was reversed and the ENRTF has continued doing its good work.

Today, the ENRTF faces the prospect of losing its constitutionally guaranteed share of the Minnesota Lottery dollars. Without this constitutional protection, a future legislature could reduce or end the dedication of lottery proceeds to the ENRTF, regardless of how much Minnesotans support the Trust Fund.

The good news is that key Legislators have introduced a bill to let Minnesotans vote once again on an amendment extending the constitutional guarantee of lottery dollars to the ENRTF. Even better, the bill would expand the ENRTF’s share of lottery proceeds to 50%, as well as including unclaimed winnings. It would also help ensure that the Legislature can’t raid the Trust Fund for wastewater projects in the future. And it would help make the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) that recommends ENRTF spending more representative of the state.

We believe, and polling shows, that if an ENRTF amendment is placed on the ballot, the vast majority of Minnesota voters will support it. Now, we just need the Legislature to do the right, popular thing, and pass a bill to let us vote for more years and more support for our Trust Fund our communities and our Great Outdoors.

How you can help: Use our action system to tell your legislators you support putting the ENRTF renewal amendment on the ballot.

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More aquifers were breached by Line 3 than previously thought

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Earlier this week, the Minnesota DNR reported that Canadian oil company Enbridge’s Line 3 oil pipeline has inflicted even more damage than Minnesotans realized on Minnesota’s waters. In addition to the January 2021 aquifer breach near Clearbrook and the spills of drilling fluid that MEP has extensively written on, construction caused an even larger breach last year near Fond du Lac tribal territory and another breach in Hubbard County.

MEP has hosted webinars, one last September and one in January, on the Clearbrook aquifer breach and the drilling fluid spills, in which scientists and Indigenous advocates explained how problems during Line 3’s construction have harmed Minnesota water resources. At the time, we knew that the breach was causing massive volumes of water to drain from the aquifer and onto the landscape. The extent of the damage from that breach may never be fully known, but it has likely permanently damaged a vulnerable type of wetland ecosystem called a calcareous fen. This breach represented a violation of Enbridge’s permits.

The new report from the DNR indicates that theother Fond du Lac breach was even more extensive, releasing hundreds of millions of gallons of groundwater across the landscape. Some of that water has likely returned to the aquifer, but again, the effects of the disruption are still not fully known.

One of the most disturbing aspects of these breaches has been how little and how late the public has been informed. Enbridge didn’t inform the DNR about the Clearbrook breach for five months as water was flowing out of the ground into its trenches. The DNR learned about the breaches in Hubbard County and near Fond du Lac several days after each one was detected around the beginning of August and early September, respectively. But the public and groups like MEP are only just learning basic information such as where they occured this week. Similarly, public awareness of the drilling liquid spills only came after Indigenous water monitors shared photos of the waterways affected.

It’s not as if MEP or water protectors have the power to turn the pipeline off or penalize Enbridge. That authority belongs to the DNR, which has dealt Enbridge a fine the company can easily afford and refused to revoke or suspend permits in the face of these violations. This is deeply disappointing. 

MEP has opposed the new Line 3 pipeline for years on multiple grounds. Each year of its operation, the burning of the oil it transmits to markets elsewhere will generate more emissions than the entirety of Minnesota’s economy combined. As with all fossil fuel infrastructure, there must be a plan to shut down Line 3 and move toward sustainable energy alternatives in order to stave off climate change.

Each of the numerous water crossings of the pipeline risks a possible spill of tar sands oil, threatening ecologically vulnerable waters and communities along its route, as happened when an Enbridge pipeline in Minnesota caused the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history. It threatenswild rice, the way of life and other resources guaranteed to Minnesota’s Anishinaabe tribes by treaty. And as we’ve seen, its construction has likely caused irreparable damage to groundwater resources in multiple locations.

What can be done?

In Minnesota, some legislators are proposing to increase penalties on companies that violate their permits in ways that harm Minnesota waters and people. Representative Jamie Becker-Finn and Senator Mary Kunesh have authored a bill that would allow higher fines for these types of breaches and for keeping them secret. Encouragingly, the DNR supports these changes.

Meanwhile, another Enbridge pipeline project is taking shape to our east. Enbridge has proposed to reroute and expand a section of its Line 5 tar sands pipeline that runs through Wisconsin and Michigan through nearly 180 waterways that run into the Bad River Reservation, an Anishinaabe community on the Wisconsin coast of Lake Superior. The Bad River Tribe strongly opposes this reroute and expansion and are demanding the protection of drinking water aquifers, Lake Superior fisheries, family farms, the Apostle Islands, and the Great Lakes. The company intends to use the same failed drilling techniques in Wisconsin that it used in Minnesota, threatening more breaches and long-term damage to the Lake Superior watershed and livelihood of Indigenous people and resources.

Just as Enbridge has acted in Minnesota and in its battle with the State of Michigan over the Straits of Mackinac, the company intends to move forward, confident that its money and influence will continue to shield the company from accountability. Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the states struggling with the consequences and undue influence of pipeline companies should learn from these disasters and choose a different path forward.

What you can do: Contact the Wisconsin DNR using Honor the Earth’s action alert and warn them against allowing Enbridge’s reroute and expansion – they should learn from the experience of Minnesota that this plan will not keep water or people safe.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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