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.

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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.

Sulfide mining debate continues, despite lack of need

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

It feels like it’s been forever that international corporations have planned sulfide mines for northeast Minnesota. Maybe it’s taking long enough that it will become clear to everyone that we don’t need the minerals, especially not for the clean energy projects the corporations claim the mines are for.

 Last month, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) announced it would maintain its decision to grant an air quality permit for the PolyMet copper-nickel sulfide mine, despite evidence that PolyMet intends to construct a larger mine than it originally told regulators. The mine, proposed to be built near Hoyt Lakes, would be the first of its kind in Minnesota and would threaten Minnesota’s waters and Lake Superior for centuries if constructed.

As MinnPost’s Walker Orenstein reports, the project faces several more decision points and lawsuits this year. While environmental groups and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa continue to resist this mine in court, state agencies have been accommodating  PolyMet throughout the process. 

Meanwhile, Twin Metals, the other major sulfide ore mine proposal in Minnesota, faces stronger headwinds. The Biden Administration has begun the process of seeking a 20-year ban on sulfide mining on federal lands surrounding the Boundary Waters, a watershed threatened by Twin Metals. However,this is not a permanent end to this threat.

Natural spaces and resources are core to our identity as Minnesotans, so it should come as no surprise that the backers of both mines claim that this type of mining isn’t just good for their economic interests, but somehow beneficial for the environment. Both mining companies claim that through new technology, they can achieve the unprecedented feat of conducting sulfide mining without polluting the surrounding watersheds. PolyMet even claims that its efforts will leave the site better than the company found it.

These claims don’t hold water, of course. These mines would destroy vast swaths of wetlands, which are among the most valuable tools we have to sequester carbon and fight climate change. Their construction and operation would generate significant emissions, regardless of Twin Metals’ claim (with no guarantee) that it would use an electric vehicle fleet to dig minerals near Ely.

Even absent a spill, PolyMet’s own proposal acknowledges that maintenance of the toxic waste site they leave behind would last 200 years or more – a timespan that will likely dwarf the existence of the company, leaving future Minnesotans to pick up the bill. And a spill from either mine would cause devastation in some of the largest freshwater resources on the planet.

Because of the weakness of those arguments, sulfide mining backers have taken to greenwashing another way: by claiming that Minnesota and the United States need the copper, nickel, and other metals they would dig up in order to facilitate the green energy transition. It’s true that this transition will require a lot of copper for turbines, transmission lines, electric vehicles, and more. But are Minnesota mines like PolyMet specifically needed to help meet these needs?

MEP member Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy analyzed that question and showed that the answer is “no.” Between the other sources of copper at existing mines, the potential to increase U.S. copper recycling from the present level of 33%, and the advent of alternatives to copper in areas like plumbing, PolyMet has no significant value to world copper markets or our green transition. Copper is widely available, with a large amount going into or already sitting in U.S. landfills. It’s certainly nowhere near rare enough to justify PolyMet, a mine that would strip massive swaths of Minnesota land to reach sparse minerals underneath it.

The most valuable natural resource in Minnesota isn’t something to be mined: it’s the freshwater ecosystems of the land of 10,000 lakes. With a majority of Minnesota waters already considered impaired, and waters around the world becoming more vulnerable due to pollution and climate change, we can’t afford to risk these resources, or to threaten the health and livelihoods of Indigenous and other downstream communities.

Our 2022 priorities focus on climate, environmental justice

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

In late November, the MEP team including members, staff, and our Board of Directors finalized our coalition’s 2022 Collaborative Priorities. This document will help set MEP’s strategy for the 2022 legislative session and our communications throughout the year. 

The Collaborative Priorities are informed by the things that MEP runs on: science, our values, and our member organizations’ work. MEP’s vision statement expresses our hope that Minnesota will put people and planet first, and that’s reflected in the policies and investments we propose.

The document reflects one of the core understandings of our coalition: that we face multiple intersecting crises that must all be solved. Minnesotans have seen climate impacts – like wildfire smoke and December thunderstorms – more than ever before during 2021. Our Pollution Control Agency now recognizes most of our state’s waters as being impaired, with broad swaths of the state devoid of waters that are fishable or swimmable. And our environmental challenges don’t affect the state evenly: communities of color and low-income areas are especially vulnerable to and harmed by pollution and climate change.

Our top shared priorities

In 2019, MEP members selected the climate crisis as our keystone issue – without a healthy climate, none of our other challenges can be solved. Minnesota needs a unified plan to address how to achieve a net-zero economy by 2040. Most of the proposals put forth or supported by MEP have this in mind, addressing the core greenhouse gas emission sources of transportation, agriculture, electricity, and buildings. MEP will continue to speak out against Line 3, the newly built Enbridge pipeline that will generate more annual carbon emissions than Minnesota’s entire economy.

As we work to solve the climate crisis and related problems, we also recognize that our institutions are too often failing to provide solutions, or actively making the problem worse by siding with polluters. Our state agencies are meant to safeguard the people of our state. Their approval of projects like Line 3 or the PolyMet sulfide mine exemplifies how our regulatory system has been captured by corporations. It’s resulted in a pattern of treating corporations as clients, failing to act in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, and disregarding harms to Indigenous communities. MEP will continue developing plans to make these institutions more accountable and people-centered.

Building on previous sessions and our work on lead testing in 2021, MEP will advocate for investments and policies that protect Minnesotans and our natural spaces from lead. Lead is one of the most potent and common neurotoxins harming Minnesotans, as our work in Duluth has demonstrated, with communities of color especially impacted. It’s also frequently found in fish, mammals, and birds, poisoning our food chain due to lead tackle, ammunition, and other sources. MEP will continue seeking investments to replace lead water pipes and policies to prohibit the use of lead in hunting and fishing.

We see opportunities for the Legislature to invest significant funds in cutting emissions, repairing and upgrading water infrastructure, and restoring our natural systems. MEP and partners will advocate for bonding dollars for climate, equity, water, and other issues. We’ll also continue to support Minnesota’s dedicated environmental funding, including the reauthorization of the Minnesota Lottery funds for natural resources and reforms to make the funding stream more equitable.

And as we’ve done each year, MEP will continue using our voice to support our members’ policy priorities. 

How we’ll push forward

As we do each session, MEP will directly lobby the Legislature on these priorities, activating our network of engaged Minnesotans to push their lawmakers to act. As with the last several years, the divided Capitol presents obstacles to progress, but that doesn’t mean we can’t move forward in key areas, especially given the state’s historically large anticipated budget surplus. Last session, MEP and our allies successfully advocated for a clean Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund bill, preventing it from being tied to a rollback to the Clean Cars rule.

MEP will continue to focus much of our work on persuading the Walz Admininistration to champion Minnesota’s future and give support to our priorities. We’re encouraged that the Governor named climate as one area that state surplus dollars should invest in. Governor Walz should use his opportunity to lead on climate this year, especially in light of his record outlined in the climate report card that MEP signed last year.

Looking forward, MEP will also help provide Minnesotans with the tools they need to hold lawmakers accountable and change the conversation at the Capitol. We’ll soon be releasing our Caucus hub, which will provide Minnesotans information on how to influence their political parties and elections through their precinct caucuses and beyond. We’ll also share platform resolutions championed by our members to help educate Minnesotans and improve party positions. At a time when our democracy is on shaky ground, shoring up these foundations is critical.

Our agenda – to protect the future of our state and our world – is broad and ambitious, but it is achievable. Minnesotans shouldn’t settle for anything less than bold action.

MEP works to dispel myth of ethanol as a climate solution

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

On Monday, December 6, MEP and 20 allied organizations called on the Minnesota House of Representatives to fix a problem that is deeply entrenched in Minnesota’s policies, economy, and landscape: the predominance of corn based ethanol. In our letter to key House committee chairs, we asked them to begin a transition away from Minnesota’s 35-year-long focus on growing corn for ethanol in favor of solutions that clean up our transportation, protect land and water, and support the livelihoods of farmers.

Ethanol was once considered a promising and less-polluting alternative to gasoline – a renewable fuel, even, given that it  can be refined from crops like corn and sugar. But ethanol is seldomly used as a fuel by itself, but rather mixed into gasoline. All gasoline sold in Minnesota is at least 10% ethanol, a mixture that generates only about 3% less emissions than regular gas when used to fuel a car. E-15 is about another 2% reduction.

While it’s true that ethanol production generates about 40% lower carbon emissions than gasoline over the course of its lifecycle, that doesn’t make it a “green” alternative. In order to meet our climate needs, we need to reach zero net emissions by 2050, the sooner the better.. We have far better prospects for cleaning up transportation by investing in transit, building up pedestrian and walking infrastructure, planning more efficient land use, supporting electric vehicles and biofuels with dramatically lower carbon intensity levels. 

Even if corn based ethanol scored better on greenhouse gas emissions, the artificially increased market for corn that ethanol subsidies have created is another reason that business as usual won’t work for our environment and climate. Minnesota is the nation’s fourth-largest state for corn production, and more than thirty percent of that corn is used to make ethanol. We use 8 million acres – about 14% of our entire land area – on corn production. That’s produced profits for some farms and agribusinesses, but it’s all devastated the waters and lands of our state.

Corn is an input- and water-heavy crop, and those inputs result in damage to the surrounding environment. Phosphorus from fertilizer runoff has impaired thousands of Minnesota lakes and nitrates flow into streams, as well as waters downriver from us in other states and all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Nitrate pollution has also made a dizzying number of rural wells unsafe to drink. Pesticides have wreaked havoc on our ecosystems. And conventional plowing and cropping systems have reduced the quality of our soil.

Not every crop grown for fuel is so destructive. As we wrote recently, the Forever Green Initiative at the University of Minnesota is currently breeding winter camelina and other crops that can provide relatively clean fuel, protect and restore water quality, and even provide habitat for pollinators. In the long run, these crops will provide a far better return on investment for Minnesota if we work to scale them up.

Corn ethanol isn’t the primary driver of climate change – but we shouldn’t treat it like a cure for what ails us. We’ve asked the legislature to recognize this reality, break ethanol’s decadeslong hold on our state, and oppose an E-15 mandate and further investments in ethanol.

As we move on from ethanol, however, we have to make sure that farmers receive full state support during the transition. In the short run, any significant change to our farming systems can be costly. But the current system is hurting farmers now, leaving farm families subject to agribusiness monopoly power and price structures for corn that are frequently stacked against them. 

In the long run, rural communities and Minnesota’s entire economy will benefit from a greater variety of cleaner crops. As with fossil fuels, we can see a future beyond corn ethanol – and it’s a bright one.

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DNR comment period on mining near BWCA ends December 8th

Posted by

Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Five days left to make a difference for the BWCA: The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is currently accepting public comments on regulations that will play a key role in the future of the Boundary Waters Wilderness and the Rainy River Watershed. Minnesota’s nonferrous mining rules – covering mining ores other than iron – will help determine whether proposed sulfide ore mining projects can be built within the watershed.

The Biden Administration recently moved toward instating a moratorium on sulfide mining on federal lands near the BWCA, but that move would not cover state lands in the Boundary Waters watershed, making these rules no less important.

The most visible project that would be impacted by updated rules is the Twin Metals copper-nickel sulfide mine, proposed to be built near Ely. But future mines in the same area would also be affected, or stopped, if the rules are strong. And there’s no reason they shouldn’t be: federal law prohibits degradation of the water quality in the Boundary Waters. Minnesota has a responsibility to ensure that protection is a reality, not just a goal. 

The original nonferrous mining rules were created nearly 30 years ago, and the science hasn’t gotten rosier on the impact of sulfide mining on watersheds. No such mine has ever operated in the United States without significant, often permanent damage to the surrounding environment through toxic acid drainage.

Twin Metals, like the PolyMet mine proposed near Hoyt Lakes, has promised to use advanced technology to protect Minnesota waters, but has offered scant proof that it will work. Even in the absence of water pollution, this type of mining is energy- and land-intensive and would result in significant climate damage.

Making northern Minnesota a test case for new mining techniques is a dangerous proposition. The Boundary Waters hydrology is extremely interconnected, and extremely vulnerable to the acidic pollution of sulfide ore waste. Pollution at Twin Metals would not be contained at Twin Metals. A large spill could devastate one of the world’s largest freshwater resources and deal a massive blow to the region’s economy.

For all these reasons, it’s important that Minnesotans make their voices heard on these rule changes. Adequate protections by the state could completely prohibit sulfide mining in the Rainy River watershed, securing the Boundary Waters against this new threat. But given the recent history of state agencies when it comes to sulfide mining, it’s vital that the DNR hears loud and clear that Minnesotans want the rules to be proactive.

The comment period ends on December 8th. We encourage all concerned individuals – whether in Minnesota or outside the state – to submit comments in support of stronger rules by that date on the official DNR comment site, or by using this link from the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. You can use information from MEP’s blogs or from member organizations like the CampaignFriends of the Boundary Waters, or the Sierra Club.

In the long term, a key goal of our coalition is to see all of northern Minnesota’s waters and Lake Superior protected from sulfide mining, through protections like the Prove it First bill and the Boundary Waters Protection Bill. Given the threats our waters already face, we can’t afford to let unproven mines owned by unethical corporations put these vital resources in jeopardy.

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Infrastructure bill delivers on key environmental priorities

Posted by

Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

On Monday, President Joe Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, bipartisan (IIJA) legislation that will invest more than $1.2 trillion in the engineered systems that the U.S. economy is built on. The Act is one of the biggest victories for clean water and clean transportation in Minnesota in recent history. While most of the dollars going to Minnesota will fund repair for roads and bridges, a significant portion will go toward investments that help us fix our pressing environmental challenges.

Transportation is Minnesota’s largest sector for carbon emissions, and the Infrastructure Act targets those emissions from multiple angles. Part of the solution is reducing vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by providing alternatives to driving, most notably transit and bike/walk infrastructure. Minnesota transit systems will be able to access more than $800 million from this legislation over the next five years. That money can’t be used for operational costs, but it can be used to develop the infrastructure needed to ensure high-quality, convenient transit service that will make it easier for Minnesotans to avoid driving.

Minnesota is also on track to receive $68 million in electric vehicle charging investments – and possibly more in grant funding – from  IIJA. Closing the gaps in our existing charging network will be key to electrifying our remaining corridors, encouraging Minnesotans to replace fossil fueled vehicles with electric models. Electric vehicles have historically been criticized as a poor fit for Minnesota’s climate, but new technology, the Clean Cars standards, and an expanded charging network will help change the story. If Norway – a country similar in population but larger in size than Minnesota – has been able to transition to nearly 80% of its new vehicle sales now being electric, Minnesota can do it too. 

Finally, while not a direct investment in climate emissions reductions, the more than $100 million slated for broadband internet service in Minnesota can have positive environmental effects, allowing for more and better telecommuting and economic development not based on extractive industries like mining. For those reasons, MEP has supported broadband investments to close the internet access gap within Minnesota.

The story for protecting our water is a great success as well: the Infrastructure Act invests $680 million in upgrading Minnesota’s sewer and drinking water infrastructure to improve safety and protect our natural resouces. MEP’s work has shone a spotlight on the threat of lead poisoning from water pipes in cities like Duluth, and this funding can make real progress towards eliminating that problem.

While not a climate solution in itself, the Act’s $20 million for protection against extreme climate events like wildfires will form a key part of our response to the crisis, and an additional $3.5 million in weatherization will cut energy usage while making Minnesota housing more livable and resilient.

Now that the Infrastructure Act has passed, MEP and partners are hopeful that it will be followed by further much-needed investments in climate emissions reductions, such as those in the ambitious Build Back Better agenda. The 2020s are the critical decade for climate action, and the most responsible thing we can do as a nation is to go as big as we can on protecting our planet’s future.

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