Minnesota’s government should lead, not stand on sidelines, in Line 3 fight

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

The extreme weather and fire events of the past year have made it clearer than ever that climate change is here, and that we need to address it as quickly as we can.

There’s a lot that Minnesota can do to lead on climate change by reducing emissions and retiring fossil fuels. But the strongest, simplest action our state can take to fight climate change is to stop the Canadian pipeline company Enbridge from building its new and expanded Line 3 oil pipeline across our state. The yearly greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and operation of the new Line 3 is calculated to exceed that of Minnesota’s entire economy during its anticipated 30-year operation. It would be a catastrophe for the climate. 

While the current, aging Line 3 pipeline is a hazard to Minnesota waters, the environmentally beneficial solution is to shut that pipeline down, not build a new one. Construction of the new pipeline will destroy critical habitat and carbon sinks, threaten entirely new and vulnerable bodies of water, and inflict harm on the rights and safety of indigenous communities. (Our friends at Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate have released a video series that details exactly how the impact of this pipeline would harm Minnesotans.)

Unfortunately, state agencies have a mixed record at best when it comes from protecting Minnesota’s future from this pipeline’s harms.

On Wednesday, Governor Walz’s Climate Subcabinet held a joint, public meeting online with members of the Environmental Quality Board. Both entities include state agency commissioners who oversee various aspects of our environment, and both are chaired by Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) Commissioner Laura Bishop. MEP staff attended this meeting, and heard about state agency’s actions to reduce emissions across the state. 

Through a live survey, members of the public were able to ask questions of the EQB and Subcabinet members, and many of the top-rated submissions asked various iterations of the question, “What can you do to protect us from Line 3?” Unfortunately, state leaders did not express opposition to the pipeline or commit to any step that would make permitting less likely. Several state permits have already been granted, and MPCA water permits are currently being considered. MEP has asked that these permits be denied with prejudice.

Earlier this year, the Walz Administration’s Commerce Department took the commendable step of refiling an appeal against Line 3’s Certificate of Need, an action which could block or at least delay the pipeline. This action was in line with the Commerce Department’s previous correct analysis that Enbridge has done nothing to demonstrate that Minnesota needs Line 3. The Minnesota Senate then voted to remove Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelley from his post, with the appeal being one of the reasons highlighted in the debate.

It should concern Minnesotans who care about a healthy, livable planet that our state leaders are not speaking out forcefully on this issue. We have a rare opportunity to fight climate change – and the world’s addition to oil – proactively by blocking oil infrastructure that will lock in more use of some of the world’s dirtiest oil for decades. Leaders who genuinely look to lead on climate simply must use all their authority and creativity to stop Line 3 now. There will not be a second chance. This is it.

Bonding bill passage is a win for Minnesota’s environment

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

This week, a broad array of environmental groups, businesses, labor unions, and communities across Minnesota had reason to celebrate as the Legislature finally passed a capital investment bill after months of negotiation. This $1.8 billion bonding bill will mostly go toward infrastructure in Minnesota, delivering benefits to residents and much-needed stimulus to the economy. While legislators admitted that it was a compromise bill, this package will go a long way to making Minnesotans safer, healthier, and more prosperous.

Great for water

For most of this year, MEP and our allies on this issue have been participating in the Fix the Pipes alliance, a coalition aligned around the goal of securing at least $300 million in bonding dollars for water infrastructure. We kept up the pressure, sending letters to lawmakers and urging our subscribers to call them and ask for this funding to be passed. At long last, the Legislature not only met our ask, but exceeded it, enacting more than $302 million in funding for water systems.

That money will go toward wastewater management, safe drinking water systems, protections from flooding, conservation techniques, new pipes, and more. In many cases, the bonds will unlock matching federal grant money. This kind of funding is especially important for small, rural communities that are often unable to cover the cost of necessary water upgrades through local property taxes alone.

Fixing and installing all this new water infrastructure will help keep pollution out of Minnesota lakes and rivers. It’s also estimated that it will create more than 7000 jobs across the state, kickstarting shovel-ready projects that have been waiting for legislative funding.

Good for transit

While the Legislature could have done better at supporting on climate- and people-friendly transportation in this bonding bill, the transit victories in the bill are significant. The Legislature fully funded the Metro Transit B Line and D Line bus rapid transit projects, which will establish two new high-frequency bus routes in the western Metro and between Minneapolis and St. Paul, respectively (see Move Minnesota’s explainer on this victory.) 

More we need to do

There’s no question that this long-awaited legislation is a victory for Minnesota. But it also highlights how much more needs to be done. The cost of Minnesota’s clean water needs numbers in the billions of dollars, and we hope that this initial $302 million investment paves the way to even more investments to clean up and prevent pollution and keep Minnesotans healthy. Minnesota also has a need to update our infrastructure to meet our 21st century climate needs by restoring habitat, building more rails and bus routes, making new buildings carbon-neutral, and helping our power systems take full advantage of clean electricity. With both our economy and our environment in need of new ideas and new public investment, MEP will be working in 2021 to keep Minnesota moving forward.

Passenger rail on a roll in Minnesota?

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Good news has been rolling in for public transportation over the past month in Minnesota. Yesterday, the Blue Line advisory committee and Governor Tim Walz reaffirmed their commitment to constructing the Bottineau light rail extension project, which would connect downtown and north Minneapolis with the northwestern Twin Cities suburbs. On the other end of the Metro Transit light rail network, construction on the Southwest Light Rail Transit (SWLRT) project has continued to steam along, fueled by federal funds and undaunted by the COVID-19 crisis. And last week, transportation officials announced that a federal grant that would help add an additional daily Amtrak trip connecting the Twin Cities to La Crosse, Milwaukee, and Chicago by 2024.

The redevelopment of passenger rail in Minnesota is good news for our climate. Transportation is our state’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, and most of these emissions come from personal cars, trucks, and SUVs. While transitioning to electric vehicles will help with these emissions, reducing miles driven is the most important step we can take.

Conventional passenger trains, like Amtrak, have a significantly lower carbon footprint per passenger than a car, and a vastly lower impact than air travel. Light rail is even better, as Metro Transit’s trains are powered by electricity, and the electricity sector is greening more rapidly than any other in Minnesota.

These rail lines will also improve the livability of our cities. The replacement of car trips will reduce air pollution that makes people sick, and traffic accidents that cause injuries and death. People who choose not to or are unable to drive will be able to reach more destinations more quickly.

However, much more remains to be done. Proposals to expand passenger rail to cities like St. Cloud and Duluth will continue to build a more resilient and climate-friendly transportation system in Minnesota – if our state can build the political will and win federal support. The next Congress and Minnesota Legislature will face major gaps in our transportation infrastructure and our economy. They should bet big on rail for our communities and for our planet.

PCA demands EPA establish mercury standard

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

On Monday, September 28, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and its counterpart in Michigan filed a legal petition calling for the Environmental Protection Agency to finally establish a standard for mercury emissions in taconite processing. This standard would set limits on mercury air pollution from taconite iron ore processing plants. While mercury in Minnesota’s air and water comes from sources outside of the state, taconite processing is a major source, and one that we have the opportunity to get under control.

Mercury is an especially toxic element for people and animals. It causes harm to nerve tissue that can lead to lifelong organ problems, neuropsychiatric syndromes, skin diseases, and other conditions. It’s especially dangerous when inhaled or consumed during pregnancy, as it can become concentrated in the placenta and lead to birth defects in newborns. 

The Minnesota Department of Health found that one in ten of the newborns it tested in the area of the Lake Superior watershed (Minnesota’s North Shore) had elevated levels of mercury at birth. 

That jarring figure isn’t a random tragedy, but a consequence of inaction. The EPA has had a mandate from Congress to set a mercury emission standard for 40 years. A federal court ordered the EPA to get around to setting a limit in 2005, and it still has not done so. The joint action by Minnesota and Michigan to spur the agency to action is as urgent as it is long overdue.

We know that agency action doesn’t always get to the root of the problem. At times, EPA and MPCA rules fall short or go unenforced, as has sadly been the case with rules governing sulfate – a problem intricately tied with mercury – in Northern Minnesota.

Likewise, we know that this rule may impose costs on the taconite industry. But right now, the costs of mercury pollution are being paid by the people who live on the shores of Lake Superior – more than 600,000 in the United States and Canada. They’re being paid by the indigenous nations who have guaranteed treaty rights to fish – rights that mean little when the fish is toxic. The value of Minnesota’s isn’t solely measured in industry profits. What we need to value most highly is the health of our people and the ecosystems on which we depend.

We applaud the MPCA action and are hopeful that the petition will succeed. As with so many issues, we’ve waited far too long for action on mercury poisoning. It’s time for the EPA to step up.

Climate crisis: here. Time for action: immediately.

Posted by

Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

The Walz Administration declared the past week Climate Week in Minnesota, raising awareness of this paramount issue and showcasing the state’s efforts to advance a climate-friendly agenda. But if the past several weeks are any indication, every week is Climate Week: climate change is in the public awareness like never before.

In the past month, Minnesotans have witnessed wildfire smoke from the tragedy on the West Coast drifting across our skies, a visible reminder that the climate crisis is upon us. Closer to home last month, another catastrophe struck south of the state line. A derecho storm with hurricane-force winds blew in with little advance warning and caused damage in multiple states, devastating eastern Iowa. It’s estimated that the storm caused at least 17 tornadoes and damaged 40% of Iowa’s corn and soybean crop.

Climatologists have said that it’s tough to conclude with complete certainty that climate change was the direct cause of the derecho, though a link is likely. But taken together with the wildfires in the West, hurricanes in the Southeast, and flooding in Minnesota in recent years, it’s clear that once-in-a-century weather events are a thing of the past – they’re happening frequently and with less warning.

We know that the single most important thing we can do to prepare for these storms is to force the fossil fuel industry to cut carbon emissions. The warmer the climate, the more fertile the conditions for fires and floods.

This is not a situation in which we can sit around and wait for someone else to lead. The simple fact is that every state, every country, everywhere, needs to do its part for the climate, and the more places that do so, the easier it will be for the others to gain the knowledge to do the same. Minnesota, a famed exporter of agricultural and medical technologies around the globe, should be at the cutting edge.

How do we get there?

Most of the good news on Minnesota’s emissions in recent years comes from our electricity sector. With the advent of cheap renewable sources that require little or no subsidization to compete, power companies are retiring coal plants rapidly. (Unfortunately, they are still leaning on natural gas – a fossil fueled pathway that does not get us where we need to go – in some situations.) Electricity needs to get greener, but in Minnesota, transportation and land use are the main issues we need to solve.

With transportation, the solution has many moving parts, but it boils down to a simple formula: we need to reduce the number of miles traveled in oil-powered vehicles, and we need to switch the miles that remain to electric-powered. The Walz Administration’s laudable Clean Cars plan and recent public and private investments in charging infrastructure is a helpful step toward the second problem. But more ambitious efforts are needed to make it easy and well worth it to Minnesotans to drive less. Making transit and bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure accessible, convenient, and as ubiquitous as possible can help us do that.

Land use and agriculture are also large contributors to the climate crisis, but this sector has the opportunity to be a net carbon sink. Soil-building farming techniques, forest and prairie restoration, and ending the dominance of factory farms can reverse emissions and lock carbon into the ground. Our food system is not inevitable – it’s a product of our choices. Agricultural revolutions have happened before, and it’s time for Minnesota to lead the next one.

We need to address these three areas, as well as industrial and residential energy efficiency, with haste. Doing so has the potential to create sorely-needed jobs and economic activity, while dragging our feet will consign all parts of our economy to more disasters and upheavals.

Elections will determine our course

There are now less than 40 days remaining until the general election, and the results will determine our policy direction at all levels of government. Minnesotans need to vote, to volunteer as election judges, and to demand that our candidates commit to the bold solutions that science tells us are necessary. MEP’s voter resources page is a good place to get started. We ask that you make sure those around you aren’t sitting this election out – our people, cities, farms, and forests are counting on our commitment to action.

Early voting has begun in Minnesota!

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Yesterday, September 18 marked the official start of voting in the 2020 General Election in Minnesota. “Election Day” as we’ve traditionally known it will be on November 3rd, but the COVID-19 pandemic and helpful expansions of early voting by mail and in-person mean that Minnesota’s results may not be fully known until up to a week later. As of now, mail-in ballots are being sent out and many local governments have opened early voting centers. 

Minnesotans rightly pride ourselves on high voter turnout, but the stakes are especially high this year. Minnesotans’ ballots will feature the Presidential race, a U.S. Senate seat, U.S. Representatives, State Senate and House seats, a Minnesota Supreme Court Justice election, and numerous local races. Every vote will count. Four years ago, Minnesota’s Electoral College votes were decided by a margin of less than 2 percentage points. In 2018, a large number of State House seats were decided by even smaller margins – one was even decided by an 11-vote margin.

The Minnesota Environmental Partnership is a non-partisan organization, and we don’t lend our support to candidates or political parties. But we believe that it is a fundamental right and responsibility for eligible Minnesotans to safely cast a ballot, and to think about environmental issues when they do. The health of the planet we live on, facing unprecedented, human-caused environmental catastrophes, is what’s at stake. And that’s not just a commentary on the Presidential race. Congress will be responsible for writing legislation that transitions our nation to clean energy and agriculture. The Minnesota Legislature will determine whether we can shift to a climate-healthy transportation system, pass a bonding bill to protect our water, and support a much-needed transition in agriculture. Local races will decide whether our communities will have environmental advocates protecting our communities from pollution.

If you’re a subscriber to the Environmental Insider, there’s a good chance that you know most of this already. You may already have a plan to vote, or a ballot on its way to you in the mail. If so, great! But here’s the next thing you need to do: call or text a few people you know and make sure that they will do the same. 

Here’s how easy it is to vote in Minnesota, and what the critical facts are:

  • To be eligible to vote in Minnesota, you must be a U.S. citizen, 18 or older, a resident of the state for at least 20 days, and finished with any felony sentence if applicable.
  • You can register onlineon paper, or in person. Registering online is the fastest method, and only requires a Minnesota ID number or your Social Security number. Remember that you must re-register if you have moved since the last time you voted, and you can check to make sure you have done so online.
  • Voting by mail is safe and secure, it does not require an absentee excuse, and helps prevent you or others from being exposed to COVID-19. Some Minnesota municipalities hold elections exclusively by mail. However, it is not the fastest method of voting, and it is strongly recommended that you send your ballot as soon as possible after receiving it to account for any postal delays. You can check the status of your ballot online. A mailed-in ballot received within 7 days of election day will be counted as long as it is postmarked on or before election day.
  • If you do vote by mail and make a mistake on your ballot or change your mind about a candidate, you can contact your local election office (usually your County office) and request a new ballot.
  • You can vote early in person at your county election office. This helps ensure that your ballot will be counted in a timely manner, and doing so early helps avoid long lines and wait times that are conducive to COVID-19 spread. Some counties, including all seven in the Twin Cities Metro Area, have additional in-person early voting locations.
  • The Minnesota Secretary of State’s website has resources for volunteering – you can help the election run more effectively by becoming an election judge or hosting a registration drive.

While you’re encouraging people close to you to vote, you may also want to help them understand just how critical these elections will be for our environment – our water is getting less safe, our soil is being used up, and our planet is getting hotter, and we don’t have any time to waste. You can find information on our website at www.mepartnership.org, including our Voter Resources page, or peruse the websites of our member groups.

If there was ever a moment where it is absolutely essential to turn out the vote – to persuade, to push, and to lovingly pester our neighbors – this is that moment. We ask you to carry that urgency into your daily conversations. Be kind, be open-minded, but be firm. It’s never been more clear than it is in 2020 that democracy is not a sport to be watched – it’s a project we need to protect together.

Study shows cause and effect on mercury in the Saint Louis River

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

The Minnesota Environmental Partnership recently commissioned an eye-opening report on one of the greatest ongoing environmental hazards in Northern Minnesota – the mercury contamination of the Saint Louis River estuary, which empties into Lake Superior at Duluth. The report, put together by contractors at Trains, Planes & Automobiles LLC, details why this problem exists, the harms it is doing to communities in Northern Minnesota and Lake Superior, and how experts think we should best move forward to address this serious issue. 

This report will be released on MEP’s website soon, but the facts the researchers found are no secret. Mercury, especially in the compound methylmercury, is a potent toxin that can damage nerves and brain function and cause birth defects when ingested. From small microorganisms, it works its way up the food chain through fish and shellfish and into humans, which is why fishing in the St. Louis River carries a health hazard. There is emerging evidence that fish further out into Lake Superior are also contaminated by the pollution in the lake’s largest tributary.

Mercury, which is used in a number of technological applications, most frequently makes its way into aquatic ecosystems like the St. Louis River via industrial processes. Mining and coal combustion are the largest of these sources, and fortunately, direct mercury deposits into the environment are becoming rarer.

The good news is that Minnesota has been cutting down on our mercury emissions for decades, and while we can’t necessarily control sources out of state, the decline of coal power has also helped prevent new mercury deposits. The bad news? There’s already a tremendous amount of mercury deposited in the riverbed of the St. Louis, just waiting for something to come along and spread it into the food chain.

That something is a dangerous level of sulfates, another industrial pollutant. When sulfate levels in the river exceed one milligram per liter of water, they cause a frenzy of bacterial activity that turns mercury into methylmercury, which then ends up being consumed and accumulated by progressively larger organisms, all the way up to humans. 

Because of the process of “biomagnification,” large fish, birds, and humans suffer the most health problems from this process. In a state that prides itself on a diverse fishing culture, where Ojibwe tribes are guaranteed the right to fish, and which is the third most popular fishing destination in the country, the mix of sulfates and mercury in fishing waters is not a problem we can continue to avoid. Its health impacts on Duluth, the Fond du Lac Reservation, and nearby communities are growing.

The St. Louis River’s high sulfate levels largely come from mining activities in Northern Minnesota that unearth sulfur compounds, allowing them to form sulfates and wash downstream. While efforts have been made to adequately address sulfates (which are also devastating to wild rice) in Minnesota, no real solution has materialized. For example, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (PCA) proposed a sulfate standard in wild rice waters that would limit discharges, but the standard was simultaneously not strong enough to help wild rice and too strong for industry’s liking. The PCA also dropped out of efforts to establish a Total Maximum Daily Load plan for the St. Louis River Watershed, despite partners in Wisconsin, the Fond du Lac Band, and the federal government still being willing to proceed.

This problem could get worse before it gets better, as climate change causes extreme weather events that could exacerbate methylmercury production through droughts and runoff from heavy rains. Even worse would be if new sulfide mining operations like PolyMet were permitted to build, as they would result in even greater sulfate pollution. Under the Lake Superior Zero Discharge Demonstration Program, Canada and the United States were charged with virtually eliminating a group of toxic pollutants including mercury from the Lake Superior basin by this year. At the very least, we can’t jeopardize the reductions that have already been achieved by letting mercury spread around the lake’s ecosystem.

There isn’t a silver bullet that will heal the St. Louis River, and some continued research is needed. But continuing to wait around and let sulfate pollution spread mercury into people just isn’t good enough for Minnesotans. We need state leaders, especially the Pollution Control Agency, to make the critical choices that will provide safe water and safe food for all the people of Northern Minnesota.

The full report, Mercury in the St. Louis River Watershed, will be released soon on www.mepartnership.org. The report was authored by Robin Washington, Bob Hirshon, and David Schafroth. Robin Washington is the former editor of the Duluth News Tribune and the former editor/publisher of the Lake County News Chronicle. Bob Hirshon is a veteran science journalist working in print, broadcast and digital media. David Schafroth is a writer and community organizer in Duluth.

Great Lakes platform calls for Presidential action on our greatest water resource

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

A few weeks ago, the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition (HOW) published its 2020 Great Lakes Platform, a list of policy priorities that it asks Presidential candidates and other office-seekers to support. This was followed by HOW’s Director, Laura Rubin, penning an August 28 letter (fourth one on the page) to the New York Times in support of the platform. MEP and several member organizations are active members of HOW and Executive Director Steve Morse is currently a co-chair of the HOW Governance Board. The HOW Coalition identifies five major action planks that would help protect and restore this region, home to tens of millions of people and more than a fifth of the world’s surface fresh water.

The 2020 election will be a deeply pivotal one on a multitude of issues, and while it may not be the most visible issue of the campaign, the health of the Great Lakes is critical to the future of our country. Whether we can protect our greatest freshwater resources will help determine our adaptation and response to climate change, the health of our people, our food systems, and our economic path.

Here are the planks that HOW lays out, and what they mean for Minnesota:

First, the platform calls for $475 million in annual federal funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a major infrastructure and ecological protection program that has enjoyed bipartisan support for nearly a decade. In the recent past, the GLRI has been funded at $300 million, despite cuts proposed by the Trump Administration. The GLRI has had significant positive results for the environment and economy of Minnesota’s North Shore, especially in the Duluth area, and MEP has strongly supported its continued success and expansion.

The next plank is perhaps a larger ask, but an urgent one: a plan to address the Great Lakes region’s need for $179 billion worth of upgrades and fixes to water infrastructure. As we’ve seen in places like Flint, Michigan, being adjacent to the greatest freshwater resource in the world is no guarantee of safe drinking water. Minnesota has our own pressing need for better water systems, and a plan like this would help us cope with that pressure.

The platform calls for urgent action to arrest the spread of aquatic species like Asian carp, which devastate ecosystems and fishing industries. So far, Lake Superior has had the least trouble with invasive organisms, but if measures like blocking carp and addressing ballast water from shipping that carries these species aren’t enacted, we could see widespread harm in Minnesota’s freshwater sea.

HOW also identifies health-threatening pollutants like lead, PFAS, and mercury as requiring urgent federal attention, and calls for better enforcement and tougher standards for water quality. For an area like Minnesota’s St. Louis River, where mercury contamination has entered the human food chain via fish, better water protections would be a much-needed reversal of a frightening trend accompanied by governmental agency inaction.

Lastly, the platform calls for action on algal blooms, the phosphorus-fueled surges of algae that leave behind toxic, deoxygenated “dead zones” in vast swaths of lakes, which notoriously threatened the health of Toledo, Ohio several years ago. Algal blooms in the Great Lakes are similar to those in the Mississippi watershed and the Gulf of Mexico, and both are largely the result of an industrial agriculture system that lets fertilizers wash off the land and into our waterways, poisoning the resources downstream. Conservation and fertilizer programs can help with this problem, but it will also require us to rethink what type of crops we plant on our lands and watersheds. MEP has long been committed to leading on this work of developing and using more continuous living cover crops in Minnesota.

MEP believes that candidates for the Presidency, Congress, and state offices should study and commit to supporting this platform. They should also go further and address the greatest overall threat to our Great Lakes: the climate crisis. Water temperatures on the lakes are warming fast, and the waterline and weather changes are wreaking havoc on places like Duluth. Ambitious climate action is a fundamental need in order to keep our water drinkable, our ecosystems viable, and our communities healthy.

Climate impacts are disparate – solutions must be equitable

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

As if 2020 didn’t feature enough human health threats already, it is becoming even more starkly obvious this year that climate-worsened disasters – wildfires in the West and a devastating hurricane season on the Gulf Coast – will continue to wreak havoc on a massive scale. Like most disasters, these climate catastrophes do not dole out harm equally. In virtually all cases, lower-income areas and communities of color are more vulnerable to the effects of wildfires, floods, and other climate disasters in the United States.

A 2018 study found that while predominantly white communities in Northern California, for example, are not necessarily less prone to wildfires than communities of color, they are far less vulnerable to harm due to these fires. Generations of overt and covert segregation and the persistent racial wealth gap have resulted in a situation in which affluent white communities have easy access to insurance, landscaping services, and reconstruction aid that marginalized communities lack. Native American reservations in the West are particularly vulnerable, as government-sanctioned land theft forced them onto dry, remote lands with little access to water and few services for rebuilding and fire prevention. (The study report is relatively brief and well-worth a read.)

Hurricanes are little different in their disparate impacts. Hurricane Laura is currently flooding a swath of Louisiana and surrounding states. Louisiana and East Texas are home to numerous industrial petrochemical facilities, which are often situated in close proximity to Black communities. When Hurricane Harvey devastated East Texas (from which it still hasn’t recovered) three years ago, refineries released massive quantities of toxic chemicals that harmed people nearby. While Laura seems to have spared these refineries for the most part, the very process to shut them down in advance of the hurricane results in pollution. As long as these refineries are active, this will be a perennial threat. As so often happens in the fossil fuel industries, profits are kept private, while costs are paid by people and their governments.

Minnesota may have smaller wildfires and floods, but climate impacts are still harmful and socially disparate in our state. Within Minneapolis, for example, heat waves can be more than 10 degrees Fahrenheit hotter in traditionally Black neighborhoods than in white neighborhoods due to having more concrete and less tree cover. It’s a legacy of deliberate segregation via redlining that continues to cause harm today. Minnesotans of color also suffer higher rates of asthma and other chronic respiratory conditions that make people vulnerable to air pollution, wildfire smoke, and even dust and heat from increasingly powerful thunderstorms.

Solutions will save lives and money

Fossil fuels are among the most costly sources of energy and material on the planet. The purchase price of oil might be low, but only because the external costs of pollution and climate damage are not borne by oil companies, but passed on to all of us, especially low-income communities. Our historical choice to build a fossil fuel-addicted, climate-breaking economy that sacrifices the health of people of color and hits low-income communities hardest. Fortunately, as coal grows more expensive relative to wind and solar power and electric vehicle prices continue to be reduced, it becomes even harder to argue against progress.

Climate solutions can create a more equitable and healthy society for all. Vehicle electrification, such as Minnesota’s Clean Cars efforts, for example, will help reduce health problems from vehicle-emitted air pollution. Wind and solar energy and ecological restoration create new, sustainable jobs. Preventing new oil pipelines and sulfide mines from running through our wetlands will protect water sources for indigenous people and prevent future Minnesotans from being saddled with cleanup costs. Investing in public transit will create opportunities and make life easier for thousands of Minnesotans.

Pushing forward with any or all of these solutions is needed, but it’s not everything – we need to break free from both the unhealthy technology of the past and the social structures that reproduce inequality. As climate activists and environmentalists, we have a responsibility to work against all forms of racism, and that starts with engaging frontline communities every step of the way. It means that we can’t continue perpetuating top-down, white-dominated leadership structures that maliciously or intentionally exclude people of color. Organizations and advocates can’t afford to think ourselves so enlightened that we are somehow above criticism or immune from blindspots. We can’t repeat the mistakes of the 20th-century economy as we’re building a better one.

Commission recommends Environmental Trust Fund projects for 2021

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Last week, Minnesota’s Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota resources (LCCMR) came to an agreement on recommending projects to be funded in 2021 by the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund (ENRTF.) This list of $70 million worth of science, restoration, and conservation projects will be submitted to the Legislature for approval early next year.

This jargon-heavy news bodes well for Minnesota’s environment. The Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund is one of the state’s most valuable sources of support for projects that make Minnesota’s environment cleaner, our communities healthier, and our scientific knowledge more advanced. Created by voters in a constitutional amendment referendum, it has been working effectively for the better part of three decades. The 2021 recommendations include funds for parkland acquisition and improvement, research into storage of renewable energy, and critical, time-sensitive protections against invasive species

Previously, the LCCMR has been logjammed over the inclusion of wastewater infrastructure in the recommendations. MEP and our allies have argued that funding a basic government service like wastewater infrastructure upgrades from the ENRTF is unconstitutional and would lead the trust fund to be drained dry. After legislation to do so anyway was passed in 2018, we sued to block the sale of the bonds. Fortunately, the Legislature corrected the problem in 2019, but the controversy has lingered since then.

A stark contrast with 2020

The LCCMR did not make a final recommendation for projects for the 2020 Legislative Session, though it did create a tentative list. Bills have been introduced to fund the projects during the regular legislative session, as well as in the special sessions, this year, but nothing has passed. 

Initially, the ENRTF programs understandably took a backseat to COVID relief. But the Senate then refused entirely to consider an LCCMR funding bill, citing the looming budget deficit. After three subsequent special sessions, the Legislature has not funded any projects from the ENRTF this  year.

This failure to fund programs is foolhardy from an economic standpoint. The Trust Fund was developed with proceeds from the state lottery and investment revenue. It supports numerous jobs in science, engineering, and natural resources management. At a time when unemployment is at high levels, it makes no sense to interrupt critical research and improvement programs that rely on ENRTF money. With an accelerating climate crisis, increasingly polluted water, and a desperate need to protect our biosphere, this is no time to leave tools unused in the toolbox.

The failure to pass a bill is also a betrayal of Minnesota voters. The original 1988 amendment to create the state lottery and the ENRTF passed with over three-quarters of voters in favor. We as Minnesotans created the Trust Fund to improve our landscape, our economy, and our well-being. We didn’t include a clause saying, “Unless the Legislature decides it’s not worth passing a bill.”

It’s unclear whether the Legislature will return for another special session this year, or if they’ll agree on much if they do. But if they do come together, passing a Trust Fund bill would be an easy, bipartisan win for jobs, wildlife, and a more sustainable future.