Biden’s infrastructure proposal would be a boon for climate and drinking water

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

This week, the Biden Administration released the American Jobs Plan, a $2 trillion national infrastructure proposal that would have enormous implications for the country’s environment and public health. Though it is first and foremost an economic development plan, it is also a climate plan, a clean water plan, and generally a lifeline for our environment.

While infrastructure is often described with the pithy phrase, “roads and bridges,” the plan recognizes that the basic systems we rely on constitute a much broader category. It includes the wires that deliver power and internet, the pipes that deliver drinking water, supply chains, housing, essential services and more. It’s a welcome paradigm shift away from one that too often focused on how we can mostly serve people in cars, not people in general. Simply repairing crumbling old systems won’t work anymore, and the Biden Administration’s plan correctly recognizes the need to think bigger.

The American Jobs Plan is expansive and covers a multitude of areas – here are some of the projects that would have major implications for our environment in Minnesota:

  • Transportation: The largest source of carbon emissions in Minnesota and in the United States, transportation is a tough nut to crack, as the preeminence of fossil fueled personal vehicles is deeply embedded in our systems and economy.

    The American Jobs plan addresses this from multiple angles. It invests heavily in public transit systems ($85 billion), Amtrak ($80 billion), and safe pedestrian and bike routes to provide clean transportation options that help reduce vehicle miles traveled. Lack of funding has been an obstacle for providers like MetroTransit, and this funding would help close gaps in service. It would also invest in electric chargers, targeting half a million built by 2030, as well as other incentives to make it easier to replace fossil fueled cars and trucks with zero-emission models.

    It would start the important work of replacing public vehicles, like school buses, with electric models, reducing carbon emissions and air pollution. And it would do away with land use policies that discourage clean transportation, such as mandatory parking minimums and harmful zoning restrictions.

  • Clean Water: The water systems around our country are as old and as harmful as many roads, and are in dire need of upgrades. Our work in Duluth on testing for lead in household drinking water has helped demonstrate the need to replace lead lines.

    The American Jobs Plan includes the most ambitious effort in history to eliminate lead in drinking water: it would replace all lead service lines in the nation and provide grants to states and communities to bring their water systems into the 21st century.

  • Clean Energy: While electricity is becoming less and less carbon intensive, especially in Minnesota, our power grid needs a big boost from the federal government. The plan would rejuvenate clean energy investment incentives to utilities, and spend $100 billion on making sure the power grid can handle it. Major utilities that serve Minnesota, like Xcel and Minnesota Power, have already set goals to bring 100% clean electricity within decades, and these investments could help move up the timeline.
  • Natural Spaces and Land Use: Reforestation, conservation and other land use tools are critical to helping soak up emissions and approach net-zero. The American Jobs Plan identifies these natural spaces as infrastructure worthy of investment, and would create a Civilian Climate Corps to conduct restoration work around the country. This would create shovel-ready jobs that would support real comebacks for nature, improving the health of people and wildlife. We’ve seen what good natural lands restoration can do in Minnesota through our Legacy Amendment and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative – the American Jobs Plan would bring even more of this support to Minnesota and the nation.

The American Jobs Plan may look different as it makes its way through Congress, but these project ideas represent the most significant environmental proposal from the U.S. Executive Branch in history. We hope to see Congress support this plan.

PolyMet permit pause may signal turning tide on sulfide mining

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Last week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers suspended a key permit for the PolyMet sulfide ore mining project, tapping the brakes on the project due to the need for more review. The permit, which would allow PolyMet to destroy more than 900 acres of wetlands in northern Minnesota, will be paused for 90 days while the EPA considers how the mine may affect the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa downstream from the site in the St. Louis River watershed.

The EPA review and the permit suspension are a hard-fought victory for the Fond du Lac Band. The tribal community had sought to overturn PolyMet’s state-level water pollution permit at a U.S. District Court. While they didn’t win that argument, Fond du Lac was allowed to maintain pressure on the EPA to review PolyMet’s potential impacts on the reservation. If the EPA finds that PolyMet may affect Fond du Lac, the agency will have to notify the band, which opens up additional review on the permit.

While the review process is complex, and other legal challenges are moving simultaneously against PolyMet, the Army Corps’ permit suspension is good news for all those who are rightfully concerned about sulfide mining in Minnesota. Every additional review step and successful challenge helps rectify a process that has been stacked in PolyMet’s favor, and represents another opportunity for the mining company to be definitively told “no.”

The science is clear: sulfide mines like Twin Metals and PolyMet would be disastrous for Minnesota and the planet. The stored waste from the mines would be highly toxic, and a spill – increasingly likely due to climate change – would obliterate vast swaths of ecosystem and threaten downstream neighbors like Fond du Lac, not to mention 10% of the world’s surface freshwater supply in Lake Superior. And even absent a spill, the destruction of hundreds of acres of wetlands – key carbon sinks – would be harmful to the climate.

That’s why another development on the sulfide mining front is also welcome this week. Senator Tina Smith sent a letter asking for the Biden Administration to initiate a mineral segregation and withdrawal process in the Rainy River watershed, to allow study on whether sulfide mining can be safely done in that ecosystem. The watershed of the Rainy River and the Boundary Waters around it would be impacted by Twin Metals, the other well-known sulfide mine project in Minnesota. In the letter, Smith notes that the land and water resources of the region are critical to native communities and to Minnesota’s recreation economy.

Previously, the Obama Administration had initiated a mineral withdrawal process for the same purpose, only for it to be canceled in the second year of the Trump Administration. This withdrawal would allow for study to be continued. The Boundary Waters watershed is one of the most vulnerable freshwater ecosystems on earth, and an accurate scientific picture of how sulfide mining would affect it can help make the case that the risk is too great.

We thank Fond du Lac and all the organizations working to pressure leaders and continue legal challenges. Through their work, there’s hope that we can say “No Thanks” to these ill conceived sulfide mining proposals.

Haaland makes history, heads Interior Department at a critical time

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

On Thursday, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland made history upon her swearing-in as the first Native American woman in the United States Cabinet and the first to lead an Executive Branch department. Approved on a bipartisan 51-40 vote, Haaland will lead a Department with enormous authority over public lands, natural resources, and indigenous issues.

While bipartisan, the road to Secretary Haaland’s confirmation was fraught with environmental controversy and racial biases. One Minnesota member of congress led a campaign in the House to oppose her nomination. Minnesota U.S. Senator Tina Smith spoke out against the attacks on Haaland, which played on tropes about Native Americans and sought to paint the appointee as a radical.  MEP and around forty other organizations, members of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, signed a letter of support for Haaland’s confirmation.

Secretary Haaland is a former U.S. Representative from the area of Albuquerque, New Mexico and is an enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe. She has a background in law, business, and tribal government. Her service as Secretary means that she will be the first Native American to oversee the federal department largely responsible for indigenous tribal issues, through the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

At Interior, Haaland leads one of the oldest and largest federal departments in the United States. The Department of the Interior administers 75% of the roughly 640 million acres of land controlled by the federal government. This includes National Parks, monuments, reservoirs, and other resources.

The Department of the Interior, and Haaland’s service, has powerful implications for Minnesota through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Twelve federally recognized tribes, both Dakota and Anishinaabe, hold land within the state’s boundaries. Minnesota’s history is inseparable from the state’s continual attacks over centuries on tribal land and sovereignty, which continues today in the form of environmental injustice and other offenses. Having an Interior Secretary who is a tribal member, who appeared at protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, and who has opposed fracking may signal a positive change in the government’s relationship with tribes.

Other Interior Agencies, including the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Geological Survey, are active in Minnesota and around the Lake Superior watershed. They oversee many treasured public lands like Voyageurs National Park, Isle Royale and the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, provide vital scientific data, and make decisions on the use of natural resources within the areas they oversee. We know that good stewardship of public lands will be crucial in the fight against climate change, so it is encouraging to see the Interior Secretary’s record in favor of ambitious climate action.

We hope to see Secretary Haaland continue to lead on climate action, Great Lakes restoration, protection of our public lands and other issues critical to our future in Minnesota and the nation.

As ground thaws, Minnesotans keep standing against Line 3

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photo credit: Margie O’Loughlin

Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

On Thursday, hundreds of people gathered in St. Paul near the Ford Parkway Bridge across the Mississippi to speak out against the Enbridge Line 3 tar sands oil pipeline being pushed into the earth in Northern Minnesota. Their aim: to persuade President Joe Biden to revoke permits for the pipeline, as he wisely did for Keystone XL, and prevent the climate-harming project from being completed. In the immediate term, this would keep Enbridge from drilling under the Mississippi River headwaters and nine other rivers, which they are poised to do as soon as the ice is off the water.

The rally was organized by MEP partner Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light, and was part of a grassroots multi-faith day of action that lifted up bold climate demands in over 40 countries. More than 300 high-level faith leaders stood in solidarity with those directly working to halt Line 3.

It comes at a critical time: the pipeline is nearly at 50% completion, and Enbridge is likely to begin drilling again within days. Water protectors will continue doing what they can to halt the pipeline, after Minnesota state agencies enabled construction by permitting this Enbridge boondoggle. Federal action could still stop this pipeline before more harm is inflicted on Minnesota.

If you’ve read our previous coverage of Line 3, you likely know why it ought to be stopped:

  • Tar sands oil is among the most carbon-heavy on Earth, and this pipeline’s oil and operation would have a yearly climate impact greater than Minnesota’s entire economy combined. Despite being billed as a replacement project for the aging Line 3 that is already in the ground, it would more than double the amount of oil being transported.
  • Line 3 violates the treaty rights of these sacred lands guaranteed to the Anishinaabe tribes of Minnesota. It carves a new path underneath waters that are home to the resources that the treaties are meant to protect, such as wild rice and fish. A spill in these lakes and rivers at the headwaters of the Mississippi would be devastating to these resources and represent yet another attack on Anishinaabe culture.
  • The threat to those waters, and to Lake Superior, is a real one. While Enbridge claims that its new pipeline is a safe alternative to the old one, its track record is not one of safety: the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history took place on the old Line 3 right here in Minnesota. Saying, “but this time it will be different!” is not especially convincing.
  • Pipeline opponents predicted that Line 3 would lead to a spike in sex crimes and exacerbate the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women crisis in Minnesota, and so far this prediction is proving painfully accurate. Reports of assaults and harassment near the construction corridor are continuing to emerge.
  • The Line 3 process was designed and allowed by agencies to favor Enbridge. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did not prepare an environmental impact statement, leading to a court challenge by plaintiffs that include the Red Lake and White Earth Anishinaabe bands. Fortunately, President Biden has the power to send the Corps back to the drawing board.

The alternative to the aging Line 3 that currently snakes through Minnesota is not to replace it with a new pipeline; it’s to remove it entirely, leave the tar sands oil in the ground, and transition to an economy that is no longer powered by fossil fuels. We’ve been encouraged by many of the climate steps that President Biden has taken so far. We hope to see him make the right decision on Line 3.

I am fighting for my right to go solar – and need your help.

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Let your legislators know that you support the right of HOA Homeowners to go solar

By Nancy Simmet, HOA homeowner and Solar United Neighbors solar advocate

Like more and more Minnesotans, I want to produce clean, renewable solar energy from my rooftop. But there is a problem for me. My home is part of a Homeowners Associations (HOA) and my HOA has blocked my effort to go solar. As I have learned more about this issue, I have discovered that this is a common occurrence for HOA homeowners that want to go solar and is slowing the growth of rooftop solar in our state.

Fortunately, state legislation has been introduced (House File 257 & Senate File 381) that would give HOA homeowners like me the right to go solar. HOA’s could still place reasonable restrictions on the solar array but could not block it. The legislation has bi-partisan support in the House and Senate and if it passes my dream to go solar can become reality.

Please, let your state legislators know you support this legislation by clicking here: Tell lawmakers to protect solar in Minnesota from unfair HOA limits

This issue impacts a lot of Minnesotans. Minnesota has 7,725 HOA’s making us 15th in the country for number of HOA’s. There are 1,506,000 Minnesotans living in these HOA’s. That is just over 1 in 4 Minnesotans. Many HOA homes like mine are perfect for solar with large, flat roofs with no shading from trees.

I have owned my home in the Oakpointe of Eagan Homeowners Association since August of 1999 and even served on the first community board of the association. During the summer of 2020, I heard of the Federal and local incentives that were being offered to put solar panels on the roof of your home. Due to an interest in the environment and Covid giving me nothing but time to research, I dug in. I gathered information on solar installations and solar companies. I found a local solar company that put together a comprehensive package that met my homes specifications.

Next, I approached my HOA board to apply for approval. I forwarded the information and filled out the HOA application form that they required for outside changes or construction. I submitted all the information on October 13, 2020. I received the rejection email the following day, October 14, 2020. Basically, no discussion between the Board members or with me. Just following what has been done in the past with the outdated 1999 bylaws.

I was and still am very disappointed in this rejection and think it is wrong and bad for HOA homeowners. Why?

 I believe in renewable energy and that the consequences of NOT moving forward are real.

I believe Minnesota can be a leader in the renewable energy field by developing businesses and manufacturing jobs to meet our future head on!

And I believe with proper restrictions, that HOA homeowners have a right to put solar energy panels on their own roofs. That it is architecturally attractive and, indeed, an update that improves the association as a forward-thinking community in which people want to live.

Since the rejection, I ran and got voted on to the Oakpointe Association board. Now I can say as a HOA homeowner and board member, I strongly support this legislation. Please, let your legislator know that you support it too – Tell lawmakers to protect solar in Minnesota from unfair HOA limits

Minnesota shows up for Lake Superior on Great Lakes Day

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MEP staff and allies meet with Libby Foley of Rep. McCollum’s office on Great Lakes Day

Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

March 1-5 marked Great Lakes Days 2021, an annual occasion of advocacy and collaboration with the Healing Our Waters (HOW) Great Lakes Coalition, for North America’s largest freshwater resource. Great Lakes Day brings together organizations from across the region to talk to members of Congress about the needs of this watershed, home to 30 million people.

Due to COVID-19, this year’s Great Lakes Day took place virtually (hence the Zoom screenshot at the beginning of this article.)  Minnesota’s citizen delegation spoke up for our communities at the headwaters of Lake Superior. MEP is the Minnesota co-state lead of the HOW Coalition. Great Lakes Program Director Andrew Slade represented MEP staff. The team also included Steve Schultz of Clean Water Action, Kris Eilers of the St. Louis River Alliance, ChaQuana McEntyre of Families Rise Together, and Christina Trok of Duluth’s Health Equity-Northland. Additionally, MEP Board Member Mark Sanstead of Hastings Environmental Protectors, Whitney Smith of the Healing Our Waters Coalition, and MEP Executive Director Steve Morse each joined us for one congressional call.

Our team met virtually with staff members from the offices of U.S. Senators Klobuchar and Smith, as well as staffers for U.S. Representatives Craig, McCollum, Omar, Phillips, and Stauber. Our advocacy supported several priorities, but centered on the health of Lake Superior and the people who live on and near its shores.

Clean and Affordable Drinking Water

Communities like Duluth are able to draw from the world’s largest source of surface freshwater, but also tend to suffer from aging infrastructure and water pipes. In Duluth, lead water service lines are hurting families, especially in low-income communities. Children are especially vulnerable to this invisible problem, on which MEP has helped to shed light by organizing water testing in households. As Whitney Smith said in one of our meetings, “One child poisoned by lead in their drinking water is one too many.” To address this problem, we asked members of Congress for a $10 billion investment in the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, which would help to replace lead service lines around the basin. 

Additionally, the COVID-19 recession and water infrastructure issues have left many families struggling to pay their water bills. The Minnesota team supported an extra $500 million in COVID-19 relief legislation for water bill relief.

Great Lakes Restoration

MEP has long supported continued and expanded Congressional funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), which has improved public health, natural habitat, water quality, and economic revitalization around the basin. In our meetings, we showcased the positive impacts of the GLRI on the St. Louis River Area of Concern in Northeastern Minnesota; GLRI has helped the water and landscape of the polluted St. Louis estuary to take large steps toward recovery in the last several years. Said Kris Eilers, “We’re rebuilding our relationship with the water, actually swimming and paddling on the St. Louis River now.”

We also focused on the issue of equity in distributing GLRI funds. Indigenous communities and communities of color around the Great Lakes experience disproportionate environmental threats from pollution, and have received less investment in recovery. ChaQuana McEntyre drew on her organizing experience as the founder and President of Families Rise Together in Duluth, telling Rep. McCollum’s staff, “People of color know the problems, they don’t know how to be part of the solution.” The GLRI should help give these communities the resources and information they need to improve public health and environmental quality at the local level.

Stopping Line 3

The planned Line 3 tar sands oil pipeline, like other Enbridge pipelines, passes through the Lake Superior watershed and threatens resources that are sacred to Minnesota tribes. A spill in the watershed would be immensely destructive to the Lake Superior ecosystem and communities nearby. And its climate impact, which will exceed Minnesota’s entire economy if it begins full operation, is a threat to the Great Lakes at large. Warmer temperatures are disrupting their ecology and threatening people with extreme weather events.

For all these reasons, winning Congressional support for action to put a hold on this project is needed. In our meetings, we thanked Representatives Omar and McCollum for their separate letters to President Biden, which both asked him for action to halt current pipeline construction. While other Minnesota members of Congress have been quiet or supportive on Line 3, we will continue working to build public pressure on them to protect Minnesota.

Democracy and the Environment

The HOW Coalition was deeply concerned about the anti-democratic actions after the November election, including those taken by former President Trump and by the insurrectionists at the US Capitol on January 6. Some members of the Minnesota Congressional Delegation enabled these anti-democratic actions by joining the Texas lawsuit or by voting to not accept the results of the Arizona and Pennsylvania elections. Because of these actions, the Minnesota Great Lakes Day team chose not to meet with Reps. Emmer, Fischbach and Hagedorn. 

HOW sent a statement to every member of Congress from the Great Lakes. At its core, it says we believe there is a direct connection between a strong democracy and environmental protection.  

Here’s a short excerpt:

“America’s democratic electoral process at local, state, and federal levels of government is a critical component in protecting the health of our communities and our water resources—as well as ensuring that no community has to disproportionately bear the brunt of pollution and environmental harm.”

Sunnier budget forecast provides opportunity to invest in protecting our future

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

On Friday, Minnesota budget officials released an updated forecast for the state’s finances in the 2022-23 period, predicting a $1.6 billion surplus. Previously, it was predicted that the COVID-caused recession would leave Minnesota in the red, but better-than-expected revenue, federal aid, and reduced state spending reversed the situation. It appears likely that the surplus could end up even higher if federal aid continues to boost the state’s balance sheet, though another reversal is also possible.

As with Minnesota weather forecasts, budget forecasts are subject to change, and often unpredictable, but this is good news for the state’s finances overall. However, it also symbolizes a painful aspect of the COVID-19 recession: lower-income Minnesotans have greatly suffered, while higher-income households – which form a larger percentage of state revenue – have seen their situations remain stable or even improve.

What does this mean for Minnesota’s environment?

Reducing the pressures of an impending budget crunch should make the Legislature more free to invest in Minnesota’s economic recovery, and it’s important to dedicate new resources to critical environmental and conservation efforts.. The priorities that MEP and our partners are working for this year would serve our climate needs and support Minnesotans’ lives and livelihoods:

  • Regenerative Agriculture – Proposals to revitalize Minnesota’s depleted soil and the farmers who depend on it are in the works this year, including the “Incentivizing 100% Soil Healthy Farming” bill. The bill would provide financial incentives and support for farmers to implement soil-health practices that would improve their incomes and our natural environment. Along the same lines, MEP is continuing its long term support for full funding for the Forever Green Initiative at the University of Minnesota, where scientists are developing crops that restore land, keep water clean, and help us respond to a changing climate.
  • Clean Energy on Schools – By making investments in clean electricity infrastructure, we can speed the transition to a 100% carbon-free electricity in Minnesota. This includes grants for solar in state parks and on schools(Check out this house committee hearing video to learn more about the Solar on Schools bill.)
  • Minnesota Forests – Minnesota’s trees have an important role to play in addressing carbon pollution, and one bill at the Legislature would help grow more, with a goal of one million plantings each year from 2022-2025. This includes investments in state forests, incentives for private landowners, and replacements of trees lost to emerald ash borer.

Minnesota’s budget should work for people and our natural environment, whether we face a budget deficit or a surplus. We hope that legislators see this year as an opportunity for long-term investments in a healthy future.

Soil health bill advances in the Legislature

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Soil health advocates won an exciting victory on Thursday as H.F. 701, the “Incentivizing 100% Soil Healthy Farming” bill was approved by the Minnesota House Agriculture committee. The bill was crafted by members and supporters of MEP partner Land Stewardship Project (LSP), and has our coalition’s support.

This legislation has the potential to literally start changing the landscape in Minnesota by helping farmers implement practices that restore depleted soil. It would provide direct payments and grants to help them get started with these practices, and prioritize socially disadvantaged and small and mid-sized farmers. It would also promote practices to make these efforts successful, including tracking soil health and supporting the sharing of necessary equipment.

Why soil health is important

Minnesota’s soil has suffered damage and erosion over decades of the dominant farming paradigm, in which regular tilling and the high-fertilizer monocropping of corn and soybeans has depleted this resource.

This decline is reversible through soil-healthy practices: the use of cover crops and perennials, rotation of crops and grazing livestock, organic farming, and the ending of disruptive tilling. Over time, these practices result in the storing of carbon and other nutrients in the earth, making the soil and the farmers who rely on it more productive in the long term.

Soil health comes with myriad other benefits. Rich soil, especially when it hosts the roots of cover crops and perennials, absorbs vast quantities of water, helping to prevent floods and water pollution. And while the science is not yet clear on the full climate impact of soil health, capturing carbon in the soil is a far better alternative to allowing it to contribute to warming of the atmosphere.

The road to a soil health bill

According to Land Stewardship Project policy organizer Amanda Koehler, the bill was shaped by the input of more than 2,000 LSP members. “After our team of 15 farmer and non-farmer allies crafted the legislation, we hit the ground running to build support in the countryside and at the Capitol by sharing our stories with our neighbors and elected officials,” said Koehler. In an encouraging sign, more than 1300 Minnesotans signed LSP’s petition (which you may have seen in our last two Insiders) in support of the bill to lawmakers and Governor Walz.

The bill was introduced to the House Agriculture Committee on Thursday by Rep. Todd Lippert (DFL-Northfield), who testified on the benefits of this bill and of building soil health. “There are farmers now who are experimenting with soil health building practices…they’re excited about the differences they’re seeing in their soil.” After hearing further testimony from farmers and advocates, the committee agreed – on a bipartisan, 11-1 vote – to pass the bill onward.

H.F. 701 will next go to the Committee on Judiciary Finance and Civil Law, and will hopefully continue its journey to the full House. Its companion in the Senate, SF 1113, has not yet been heard in the corresponding Agriculture committee, and we hope to see the Senate take positive action soon. While the Legislature is divided on numerous issues this session, the nearly unanimous committee vote in H.F. 701’s favor may indicate the potential for cooperation.

Koehler is optimistic about progress on soil health. “We’re on a strong path to building resilient land, farms, and rural economies,” she said of the process ahead. As the legislative session continues, we hope Minnesotans will continue to speak up in favor of healthy land, clean water, and climate-beneficial farming.

Minnesota budget could lead on new transit investments, rather than leaving them out entirely

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

When Governor Walz unveiled his two-year state budget proposal last month, it contained many good components, including new revenue to help address the budget shortfall. But let’s just say it was underwhelming on the climate front. While it’s understandably a difficult time for state budgets, the global climate crisis is not getting the action it needs here at the state level. At a time when Minnesota has just reported increasing – rather than reducing – levels of overall emissions – the need is nothing short of urgent. The budget included few measures that would reverse this trend, and some of them are of questionable climate benefit.

Perhaps the most noticeable omission was public transit improvements, for which no new dollars are included in this budget. Among MEP’s priorities for this year is passing a funding mechanism to build out and support a first-class Bus Rapid Transit and auxiliary transit system over the next 10 years. While Metro Transit and other agencies are continuing to move forward with some service expansions, the Walz budget doesn’t aim for where we need to go. 

That’s a problem for Minnesotans, and a problem for our climate. Transportation is Minnesota’s largest contributor to climate change and a significant source of our air pollution, and most of the problem is commuter vehicles – cars, trucks, and SUVs. Even as electricity becomes cleaner, our vehicle fleet is continuing to drive emissions.

We can electrify our way out of part of this problem. MEP supports the Walz Administration’s work to implement the Clean Cars standards that more than a dozen other states have already established. Clean Cars would require dealerships to include zero-emissions models, so that Minnesotans will have more options to purchase vehicles that don’t add carbon pollution to the atmosphere. With GM’s announcement that all of its vehicles will be zero-emission by 2035, it’s clear that the tide is turning against fossil-fueled cars and trucks.

But even a Clean Cars standard and widespread adoption of clean vehicles can’t get us where we need to go on a fast enough timeline: we need to reduce vehicle miles traveled in cars and trucks. That means changes in land use and ambitiously adding to our transit fleet, not allowing it to stagnate.

We need to make sure that public transit is reliable, convenient, and comfortable for Minnesotans, so that it can provide a viable alternative to personal vehicle travel. Done right, transit can connect hundreds of thousands of people with job opportunities, services, and amenities. It can enhance environmental justice by serving disadvantaged communities and reducing air pollution by replacing car miles. And it has become clear that even as the COVID-19 pandemic continues (hopefully entering its final months), public transit is largely COVID-safe, possibly safer than rideshare services like Uber and Lyft.

The Walz Administration appears to be hoping for the federal government to fill in the gap when it comes to transit funding. It was encouraging to hear newly-confirmed Transportation Secretary Buttigieg say, “…roads aren’t only for vehicles…we gotta make sure that pedestrians and individuals and bicyclists and businesses can all coexist on the same roadway,” signalling a shift in transportation thinking at the federal government. But state funding is usually needed to unlock federal dollars for transit systems, and we can’t assume the availability of new funds that will fix all our problems.

We recognize that the final passage of a two-year budget will be a compromise process involving the Governor, the DFL-controlled House, and the Republican-controlled Senate. But having no new transit dollars in the Governor’s budget proposal does not put transit advocates in a strong position to push for the investments our state and planet need.

MEP will continue to advocate for transit improvements as part of our 2021 collaborative priorities. We hope that legislators will show much-needed leadership on this critical climate and environmental justice issue.

Legislation could put an end to misclassification of Hennepin County incinerator as “renewable energy”

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Two weeks ago, we reported on the welcome push by Minnesota legislators to pass a bill to ensure our state reaches 100% carbon-free electricity by 2040. This is a worthy effort, but there is a critical environmental justice issue at play within the discussion: whether or not to continue counting the incineration of garbage and other waste to produce electricity as a “renewable energy source.” How the legislature answers this question could have a major impact on quality of life for many people in Minnesota’s environmental justice communities.

It should be stated off the bat that garbage is not a renewable resource. While the majority of garbage is indeed from organic sources, plastics, metals, and other nonrenewable materials make up more than a quarter of solid waste in the United States. Burning plant material for power is at best carbon neutral, as it releases the plants’ stored carbon into the atmosphere, while burning petroleum products like plastic is more harmful.

Locally, waste incineration is an environmental health issue. Incinerators emit harmful substances like nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and even mercury into the local air, contributing to respiratory and neurological conditions.

It should come as no surprise that most incinerators in Minnesota, much like other sources of pollution, tend to be concentrated in environmental justice communities – communities where larger populations of people of color or people of low incomes tend to live.

Incinerators are part of a pattern visible throughout the state. Nuclear waste is stored on the land of the Prairie Island Indian Community. Oil pipelines run through Ojibwe treaty lands. Communities of color in Minneapolis tend to have substantially higher temperatures than white neighborhoods. These aren’t accidents or coincidences: they’re the consequence of generations of political decisions that force people of color to bear the costs of pollution.

Perhaps the most well-known waste-to-energy incinerator in Minnesota has the benign-sounding name of the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center (HERC) in downtown Minneapolis. It’s located just north of Target Field, on the edge of the diverse, majority-Black Near North community, where rates of asthma and other respiratory conditions are higher than in other parts of Minnesota.

Local advocates have been fighting to get HERC shut down or operations reduced for years, but have not yet been successful. For their part, Hennepin County and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency have said that because HERC has rarely exceeded the allowable emissions level of its permit, it must continue to operate. That’s cold comfort to Minneapolis residents: as we know from other cases (perhaps mines, factory farms, or oil pipelines will ring a bell) an MPCA permit is not a mystical barrier against pollution.

HERC is one of six incinerators in Minnesota (out of seven total) identified by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) as being within three miles of an environmental justice community; the other five are in Alexandria, Fosston, Mankato, Red Wing, and Rochester. Along with the other incinerator in Perham, the number of people who live within three miles of these facilities is more than 300,000 – about 1 in 20 Minnesotans.

What’s the solution?

At the very least, these incinerators should not be included as renewable energy sources for the myriad of reasons listed above. Rep. Frank Hornstein of Minneapolis offered an amendment to the new 100% clean energy legislation that would make this change for HERC.

Ultimately, policy makers should listen to the environmental justice communities they are meant to serve and take incinerators like HERC offline, while addressing the waste stream in a sustainable way. Therein lies the challenge: what do we do with our garbage?

The most common argument made in favor of incinerators is that they are a necessary evil that prevents garbage from ending up in landfills, where it would cause methane production with an even worse climate impact. Indeed, landfill use should be avoided. The solution we come up with will need to be more nuanced.

Again, the vast majority of waste is organic in nature, so municipal compost collection – a much more carbon-beneficial practice – should be expanded. Recycling can also be scaled up where necessary, especially for metals.

But beyond simply managing the waste we produce, we need to seriously reduce (the most important of the famous three R’s) the waste stream on the front end. That means reforms to packaging practices, legal protections for repairing – rather than replacing – high tech devices, and ending our addiction to cheap plastics.

This transition won’t always be easy, and there will be significant costs. But right now, the costs of our current system are being paid by environmental justice communities. We can’t afford the status quo.

Read More:

Insight News, December 2020: Re-examine the HERC incinerator through the lens of environmental justice
Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, September 2020: ‘We can’t breathe’—stop the pollution in Black communities
Institute for Local Self-Reliance, December 2018: Report: Waste Incineration: A Dirty Secret in How States Define Renewable Energy