List of impaired waters keeps growing in Minnesota

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Earlier this week, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency added more than 300 stretches of water to Minnesota’s impaired waters list. Each lake, stream, or river included on this list is considered to be impaired by failing to meet environmental standards for beneficial uses, including drinking water, aquatic habitat, fishing, or swimming. The pollutants causing these impairments vary, but they’ve added up to a disturbing fact: the majority of waters in Minnesota are now on that list.

Given the trends that MEP has closely followed for years, the continual increase in the impaired waters list is not surprising. In fact, the MPCA may be undercounting the waters that are impaired – recognizing that adding a body of water to the list can be a complex process that the agency and environmental groups work on for years. Even as some point sources of pollution like industrial facilities are shut down, new pollutants emerge. Currently, there is not an adequately regulatory framework to address them, so waters suffer more and more pollution.

Mercury is a classic example, and one of the largest sources of impairment in Minnesota waters. In the present day, Minnesota industries have greatly decreased the amount of mercury they release into the environment, though coal plants elsewhere in the country continue to deposit the toxic chemicals into our lakes, blown in on the wind. But there’s a significant amount of mercury in the river bottom in places like the St. Louis River estuary near Duluth.

As an MEP-commissioned report showed last year, industries like mining continue to release sulfate into the water. Sulfate reacts with mercury in the water to cause it to move up the food chain through fish and other aquatic life. This mercury bioaccumulates, meaning that it becomes more concentrated and more harmful the further up the food chain it goes, resulting in a health threat to humans who eat the fish. Sulfate also threatens production of wild rice, a significant problem especially for Ojibwe communities. The state has not yet adequately protected our waters from sulfate, but has begun recognizing sulfate concentrations that are dangerous to wild rice in its impaired waters list – especially after the EPA stepped in earlier this year.

PFOS is another emerging pollutant that is now being taken into account, resulting in the addition of 15 waters to the MPCA’s list. This forever chemical – a substance that does not break down naturally in the environment – is used in industry, firefighting, and consumer goods like Scotchguard. It has been recognized for years as a threat to humans and wildlife as a risk factor for kidney disease, cancers, and other conditions as our scientific understanding has evolved. Small amounts of PFOS are present in the blood of almost every person in the United States, though fortunately, concentrations have been decreasing over time. The lower St. Croix River between Minnesota and Wisconsin is one notable location deemed impaired due to PFOS contamination.

The EPA has announced that it will develop national drinking water standards for PFOS, while the European Union has banned almost all uses of it since 2006. It is no longer commonly produced in the United States. Minnesota has also passed a limited ban on PFOS’s fellow forever chemical, the cancer-causing chemical PFAS, in food packaging, and settled an $850 million lawsuit with 3M over the company’s pollution of East Metro water supplies. Pressure is building for companies to continue replacing and phasing out these forever chemicals.

Meanwhile, older and more widely-known pollutants continue to impair Minnesota’s waters, most visibly nutrient runoff in streams, rivers, and lakes. Vast swaths of waters in southern Minnesota are especially impaired by phosphorus. The primary source of this pollutant is from crop fertilizer, though sewage systems also play a role.

Excess phosphorus fertilizer spread on crops ends up running off of farm fields and into lakes and rivers, where it causes algal blooms. These algae decay, consuming the oxygen in the aquatic habitat and rendering it inhospitable for fish and other life. These blooms can also result in bacteria that are harmful or even deadly to people and wildlife.

Fortunately, fertilizer pollution is a problem with known solutions. By introducing “clean water crops” and cover crops to farmland, phosphorus use can be reduced and mitigated, protecting the waters downstream and maintaining the health of the soil. Employed in the right areas, these and other techniques can go a long way toward healing Minnesota waterways.

Minnesota’s “Land of 10,000 Lakes” nickname and our position at the headwaters of the Mississippi and Lake Superior mean that what happens here flows downstream. We have a responsibility to treat our impaired waters list as a call to action, not just as a tally of disappointments.

If you would like to reblog or republish this column, you may do so for free – simply contact the author at matthew@mepartnership.org.

Winter camelina shows promise to restore farmland, fight climate change

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Comparison of runoff filtered through soil planted with clean water crops

Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Earlier this fall, a number of farmers in Minnesota and other Upper Midwest states began introducing a new seed to their fields on 1000 acres of farmland. That’s a tiny area compared with the approximately 16 million acres of row crop lands in the state. But the seeding of the new crop – winter camelina – represents a new chapter in the history of farming in Minnesota, and hopefully the entire Midwest.

Winter camelina has been bred by the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative, a team dedicated to developing useful, marketable crops that improve the land and water around them and help to combat climate change. MEP has supported greater Legislative funding for Forever Green for nine years, helping to secure a cumulative $13 million in state funding, and we hope to continue growing this work. As we chart a new course for agriculture in the face of climate change and water and soil challenges, Forever Green is one of the best investments we can make.

Camelina isn’t quite as far along the commercialization process as the perennial grain Kernza®, another crop that Forever Green researchers focus on. But scientists and agronomists believe that if scaled up, camelina can be integral to the national economy and a big boost to water quality and ecosystems in Minnesota. 

Unlike the presently dominant row crops such as corn and soybeans, camelina requires little watering and very low levels of fertilizer. It is planted and begins sprouting in the fall, stays dormant through the winter, and is ready for harvest by June. That allows it to be planted in the same fields without disrupting the summer growing season. 

Early spring is a particularly bad time for nutrient pollution from fertilizer to infiltrate streams and groundwater, as well as a time when the soil is especially likely to erode. Having camelina roots in the soil from October to June dramatically reduces this nutrient problem and staves off erosion.

Pollinators also enjoy significant benefits. Because of pesticides and row crop monoculture, Minnesota’s farmlands are normally desertlike in their hostility to pollinating species. But camelina’s spring blooms produce food and habitat for pollinators, giving them a fighting chance at the beginning of their active season.

Along with the immediate environmental benefits of simply growing camelina, the crop’s potential applications in food and industry are great news for climate action. Camelina seeds are 36-45 percent oil, which can be used in food, biodegradable plastics, and even fuel. Aviation is a particularly difficult source of carbon emissions to solve, and it has been estimated that using jet fuel made from camelina emits 84% less greenhouse gases than petroleum-based fuel. 

Bringing this crop up to scale and onto more farmland is a no-brainer, but there are challenges that must be overcome. Existing processing infrastructure and markets are geared toward the dominant ethanol crops, not camelina. New facilities, market systems, and resources for farmers will require support from both the private and public sectors.

When the Minnesota Legislature meets again in February, MEP will be there with our partners to make the case for Forever Green and efforts to support Minnesota farmers, water, and habitat. We don’t have to wait around for miracles – we have the seeds of a new green revolution growing right here in Minnesota.

If you would like to reblog or republish this column, you may do so for free – simply contact the author at matthew@mepartnership.org.

All eyes on world leaders as climate summit begins

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

During this week, the members of the G20 – an organization of 19 of the world’s wealthiest countries and the European Union – have been meeting in Rome in advance of the United Nations COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland that begins tomorrow. The commitments and actions of the G20, who account for three-quarters of global emissions, and the other countries represented will make the difference in our planet’s future. With science clearly showing that time is short for cutting global greenhouse gas emissions at the scale we need, the eyes of the world are on Glasgow.

That includes the eyes of Minnesotans, who will be well represented by climate action leaders at the summit. Organizations with delegates to COP26 include the University of Minnesota, Macalester College, and the Science Museum of Minnesota, as well as MEP members Climate Generation: A Will Steger LegacyInstitute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, and Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.

Our state is fortunate to have these organizations representing us in Scotland, especially given our unique connections to the climate crisis. Minnesota is one of the fastest-warming states in the nation, and we’re seeing challenges to wildlife, agriculture, and public health as average temperatures rise. The heat waves, drought, and wildfires of the past year have been an especially visible sign of this crisis. They exacerbated the environmental health disparities that exist in our state, where communities of color frequently suffer higher summer temperatures than white neighborhoods.

Minnesota also sits at the nexus of one of the greatest threats to a livable climate: the fossil fuel infrastructure that snake across our state, such as Enbridge’s newly constructed Line 3. Line 3 has faced fierce resistance from our communities on the grounds of its harms to water, its trampling of the rights of Indigenous people, and its catastrophic impact on the climate (this report from ABC’s Nightline is a good overview.) What happens in Minnesota matters to the world.

Minnesota and the United States broadly have a responsibility to deliver on climate action promises, and quickly. The U.S. has done more to worsen the climate crisis than any other country, though our emissions have since been eclipsed by China (which exceeds our population by over a billion people.) Promises by themselves aren’t enough. Without action to back them up, world leaders will not only move toward climate catastrophe, but will worsen a very concerning crisis of faith among young people.

A recent international survey by Bath University found that the vast majority of people between the ages of 16 and 25 feel highly worried about climate change. They’ve grown up seeing warning after warning from scientists for decades, warnings that successive governments have ignored or procrastinated on. It’s contributed to the fact that less than a third of people in this age range believe that governments can be trusted – an understandable position in the face of inaction.

If nothing else, these numbers tell a story about the true public views on climate change. Another recent survey by the Associated Press that found that most Americans supported – and only 16% opposed – measures to cut emissions from electricity by shifting from coal and gas to renewable sources. Contrary to the dominant narrative, there is no major constituency for inaction on climate change – other than fossil fuel companies like Enbridge and Koch Industries.

The nations meeting in Glasgow this week will have the chance to not only do the right thing, but the popular thing, by firmly committing to the bold climate action we need. A swift reorganization of our economies to cut emissions from transportation, agriculture, electricity, and buildings isn’t a radical concept – it’s exactly what the world wants and needs.

If you would like to reblog or republish this column, you may do so for free – simply contact the author at matthew@mepartnership.org.

Biden Administration move could save Boundary Waters from sulfide mining

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

On Wednesday, October 20, the Biden Administration announced that it would resume federal efforts to seek a 20-year ban on sulfide mining on federal lands surrounding the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Thanks to advocacy from Minnesotans, organizations, and courageous lawmakers including Congresswoman Betty McCollum and Senator Tina Smith, this move – resuming efforts begun during the Obama Administration – could protect this natural treasure and vital water resource for years to come.

In a reversal of the Trump Administration’s support for sulfide mines, including the proposed Twin Metals mine, the federal government plans to begin by restarting a two-year study on its possible impacts on the watershed and surrounding communities. The Interior Department could then implement what’s known as a mineral withdrawal, which prevents further mining leases and development on the land.

This ban would be a major obstacle for Twin Metals, possibly preventing the mine from commencing. The company, a subsidiary of international conglomerate Antofagasta, still holds mineral permits near Ely, but those are currently being litigated. The results of the scientific study could help clean water advocates to make the case for the permits’ cancellation.

This move toward a mineral withdrawal is unequivocally a win for clean water in Minnesota. Sulfide mining has never yet been conducted anywhere in the state, and has an abysmal track record when it comes to pollution – no sulfide mine has operated anywhere in the country without significant, possibly permanent damage to the surrounding environment. The length of time that the mine would produce jobs and economic activity in the region is miniscule compared to the amount of time that present and future Minnesotans will have to spend treating the site of the mine for pollution.

When the waste from sulfide ore is exposed water and air, it produces sulfuric acid, producing acid mine drainage when it enters an aquatic environment. This drainage is highly corrosive and toxic and severely damages surrounding ecosystems. Because the Boundary Waters is so interconnected, a spill into part of the watershed could cause devastation to water and wildlife, as well as to the people who live in or visit the area. Weather events exacerbated by climate change make such a spill even more likely. And the Twin Metals mine and other mines like it would result in the destruction of numerous acres of forests and wetlands, releasing carbon into the atmosphere and worsening our environment’s ability to absorb emissions.

For all these reasons and more, MEP and our allies have been working for years to protect Minnesota for the impacts of sulfide mining from projects like Twin Metals and PolyMet, a similar mine proposal near Hoyt Lakes. Like Twin Metals, PolyMet threatens a major, vulnerable watershed: the basin of the St. Louis River, Lake Superior’s largest U.S. tributary. Likewise, PolyMet faces headwinds: its permits are repeatedly being suspended or overturned in the courts after facing legal challenges from tribal and environmental advocates.

It’s important to understand that Twin Metals and PolyMet may be two separate mines in two separate watersheds, but the connection between them is that the greenlighting of one would help pave the way for the other by setting a harmful precedent. And on the flip side, shedding light on the scientific facts about Twin Metals could help better establish the dangers in the minds of Minnesotans and in state and federal agencies.

In the long run, Minnesota’s best defense against sulfide mining pollution requires addressing the danger of these mining plans individually and of this type of mining in general. That’s the basis for the Prove it First proposal advanced by MEP, our allied organizations, and many Minnesota legislators. If Prove it First were enacted into law, it would prevent Minnesota for being a guinea pig for the purported “new technology” that PolyMet and Twin Metals claim they would use to successfully protect water. The law would require that a sulfide mine operate elsewhere in the United States for ten years without causing pollution, then be closed for ten more years without causing pollution, before such mining could be attempted in Minnesota.

The safe closure of the mines and storage of waste is particularly important. Even if a mine somehow did not pollute the surrounding water during its limited operating lifespan, it would require indefinite maintenance and treatment to deal with the aftermath – as in centuries or millenia. Given the track records of Antofagasta and PolyMet owner Glencore, we can’t trust that they would stick around to foot the bill for even a few years after shutting down a mine.

The Biden Administration has made the right call when it comes to securing the Boundary Waters watershed for current and future generations. We hope to see state and federal leaders continue to pay attention to the science on sulfide mining, and take strong steps to make sure the land of 10,000 lakes is protected.

If you would like to reblog or republish this column, you may do so for free – simply contact the author at matthew@mepartnership.org.

Regenerative crops are rapidly becoming a reality

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Don Wyse, University of Minnesota

Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Minnesota is home to the 5th-largest agricultural sector in the nation. About half of the state’s farming income comes from crop agriculture, of which corn and soybeans are the dominant products. Corn is especially prevalent – Minnesota is the fourth-largest producer in the nation and is home to more than a dozen ethanol plants.

Unfortunately, these dominant crops and the ways they are typically farmed have consequences for the air above us and the water below us. Corn is an input-heavy crop, requiring significant applications of fertilizer and pesticides, which seep into the soil and groundwater and run off into ditches and streams. Its roots don’t grow very deep and store little carbon in the soil. And the tillage that occurs on many fields results in degradation of the soil, a significant threat to the health and viability of Minnesota farmland and dramatic loss of soil carbon. Soybeans and other major summer annual crops present similar challenges.

All these problems are exacerbated by climate change, which in turn has been worsened by emissions from agriculture, one of the state’s three largest sectors for greenhouse gases. It’s one of the greatest obstacles to effective climate action in Minnesota, but it’s also one of our great opportunities to cut and absorb emissions.

The replacement of almost 18 million acres of Minnesota prairie with row crops created plenty of food, but it wiped out the “ecosystem services” that the prairie provided – carbon sequestration, soil renewal, clean water, flood protection, and habitat for pollinators and other wildlife. Given Minnesota’s struggles with water pollution, declining pollinators, depleted soil, and climate change, we need a change. To that end, a network of scientists, business leaders, legislators, and environmental advocates have worked to support the development of crops that can provide some of those services, primarily through the Forever Green Initiative at the University of Minnesota. MEP and our allies have been strong supporters and long term leaders in promoting this effort and of critical funding for Forever Green at the Legislature.

Right now, our efforts are literally bearing fruit, or in this case, grain.

A few months ago, we covered a field tour of Forever Green led by MEP and Friends of the Mississippi River, and we’re glad to report that the crops we shared with lawmakers and industries are making waves, and in some cases, making it to the shelves.

One of the most visible crops that Forever Green focuses on breeding is Kernza©, a perennial wheatgrass initially developed by the Land Institute in Kansas. Unlike corn and soybeans, Kernza® plants remain in the soil for at least several years, and build massive root systems that can grow 10 feet deep or more. Because of those roots, Kernza® does a great job at holding together soil in the face of heavy rains and floods (illustrated by the top photo in this article), can help keep groundwater clean, and is highly drought-resistant compared with the most prevalent crops. It also increases carbon storage in the soil.

Today, Kernza© isn’t a pipe dream – products made with the perennial wheatgrass are making their way to supermarket shelves. Companies like General Mills and Perennial Pantry are now buying the grain and offering consumer products. Whole Foods has conducted a limited release of a cereal made with Kernza®. The Washington Post covered the crop’s commercial in depth this past week.

The challenge for Forever Green and for Minnesota will be scaling up Kernza® and other promising clean water crops like pennycress, hybrid hazelnuts, and winter camelina. Each crop has different characteristics and advantages, but all show promise for commercial viability – if policymakers help support the emerging market for them and the farmers who want to give them a try. Business as usual isn’t working for our people or planet, but with the right steps forward, we can feed ourselves and restore our natural resources with a new revolution in farming.

If you would like to reblog or republish this column, you may do so for free – simply contact the author at matthew@mepartnership.org.

Oil companies: a broken record of broken promises

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Over the last weeks, two events in the oil industry, along with the ongoing story of Enbridge’s harms to Minnesota during Line 3 construction, demonstrated just how dangerous it is for our state and federal authorities to deal with an industry committed to its own profit at the expense of the planet.

In California, an Amplify Energy pipeline ruptured off the coast of Los Angeles and Orange County, spilling between 25,000 and 131,000 gallons of oil into the coastal waters. The oil soon began contaminating miles of shoreline, including popular beaches and marshland habitat, heavily costing the local tourism economy. The spill has affected local wildlife, and is suspected to be behind the appearance of balls of tar floating off the coast as far as San Diego.

An investigation of the spill is underway, and authorities have found that a pressure alarm went off in the early hours of October 2nd, indicating a leak was underway, but Amplify waited three and a half hours before shutting down the pipeline. After that, Amplify waited another three hours before notifying the Coast Guard. The full timeline and details of the incident are not yet public knowledge, but it’s clear that Amplify Energy’s inaction delayed a response and worsened the spill.

Meanwhile an international dispute over the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline has pitted the state of Michigan and more than two dozen other U.S. entities against Enbridge and the government of Canada. After Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer revoked an easement that had allowed Enbridge to operate Line 5 under the Straits of Mackinac and ordered its shutdown, the company defied her order.  According to the Governor’s office, “Enbridge has been unlawfully trespassing on state land as it continues to pump oil under the Straits of Mackinac beyond the deadline to cease operations.”

Sixteen states, four Indigenous tribes, the District of Columbia, and seven private organizations have supported Michigan in court against Enbridge. But the Canadian government is seeking to support Enbridge by negotiating directly with U.S. federal authorities. Governor Whitmer has pledged to continue opposing Line 5, an aging line that presents a major spill risk at the intersection of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.

This is the industry – and in the case of Michigan, the same company – that Minnesota has been told to trust as Enbridge activates its newly constructed Line 3 pipeline.

In September, MEP presented a webinar on the damage that Enbridge has already inflicted on state waters, including a devastating breach of an aquifer and causing at least 28 spills of drilling fluid in the Mississippi River watershed. We have since established an information hub for these issues on our website. We covered both issues in our Insider two weeks ago, but one key issue bears repeating: Enbridge actively covered up the aquifer breach, which violated its state permits, for at least five months.

Minnesotans were promised that the Line 3 construction process would not harm our waters. It did. We were promised that it would not exacerbate sex trafficking and harms to Indigenous women. It did. We were promised that the permits issued by the DNR and PCA would prevent Enbridge’s construction project from harming the state. They didn’t – though either agency could have stopped this pipeline in its tracks, and still could order it shut down while its harms are repaired.

We are dealing with a company that is responsible for the largest inland oil spill in United States and Minnesota history, a company whose fight against its tax assessment cost Minnesotans $45 million. We are dealing with a pipeline carrying enough oil to equal the emissions of 50 coal plants every year, a pipeline that the Minnesota Department of Commerce has agreed isn’t needed.

The question – in California, Michigan, and Minnesota – is not “How could this have happened?” The question is, given the history, why did anyone expect anything different?

If you would like to reblog or republish this column, you may do so for free – simply contact the author

Poll shows Minnesotans oppose PolyMet practices

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

New polling of Minnesotans released on Tuesday shows that while Minnesotans aren’t settled one way or another about the PolyMet copper-nickel sulfide mine project near Hoyt Lakes, they tend to turn against it when presented with the scientific and legal facts about PolyMet and its backers. This polling is a positive sign that if state regulators act responsibly to hold PolyMet accountable, rather than treating it as a client, Minnesotans will back them up.

The State of the Environment poll was conducted by Public Policy Polling and commissioned by MEP partner organization Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. It polled 662 Minnesota voters across the state and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8%. The full demographic breakdowns of the respondents is available here.

The baseline question of the survey showed that Minnesotans are divided roughly into thirds into PolyMet right now. Based on the information they had without being given more by the interviewer, 36% of Minnesotans said they support PolyMet, 33% said they oppose it, and 31% weren’t sure. But that changed when the facts were made clear.

One of the topline questions addressed the key issue raised by the Move on from PolyMet campaign, of which MEP is a member: PolyMet has had all four of its major state permits rejected or suspended in court or by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This includes its permit to mine, its permit to pollute water, its permit to dredge (destroy) wetlands, its permit to emit air pollution. The courts, siding with environmental advocates and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, have repeatedly found that the permits did not adequately address the harms that PolyMet is likely to cause.

When informed about the facts on the overturning of these permits, 51% of respondents said that Governor Tim Walz should move on from PolyMet and chart a different course for economic development in the area, 29% were still unsure, and only 21% still believed his administration should stay the course on approving PolyMet’s permits. Broken down by party, those who agreed that the Governor should move on included 69% of DFLers and pluralities of Independents and Republicans – 47% and 35% respectively.

An even steeper result emerged when the interviewers asked about corruption at Glencore, the Anglo-Swiss conglomerate that purchased PolyMet in 2019 and has been a financial and technical backer of the project for years. Glencore employees have been convicted of corruption and bribery in the course of their operations, and the corporation has a history of abusive labor practices and environmental disasters. 

The survey question asked – in general terms, without naming PolyMet specifically – how Minnesotans would feel about a proposed copper-nickel mine operating in our state under a global corporation with a history of corruption and bribery on other projects. A whopping 67% of respondents were opposed, compared with only 14% who still supported it and 19% who weren’t sure. This lopsided response may indicate that many Minnesotans aren’t aware of Glencore’s history of illegal business practices, or may not connect it to PolyMet.

Two further questions addressed the environmental impacts of the practices PolyMet intends to use. The first asked about upstream tailings dams, the method that PolyMet intends to use to store its toxic waste. After catastrophic collapses of similar dams in South America killed hundreds of people, these dams have been banned in Brazil, Chile, and Peru. If the PolyMet tailings dam were to collapse – an event that becomes more likely as climate change leads to more unpredictable storm surges – it would cause devastation to downstream resources and communities in the St. Louis River and Lake Superior watersheds. Without addressing PolyMet specifically, the question asked whether Minnesota should enact a ban on these dams: 44% agreed that the state should do so, while only 22% disagreed.

Finally, the survey asked about a copper-nickel mine that will only operate for 20 years but would require hundreds of years of treatment and maintenance to prevent further pollution afterward, again leaving out the PolyMet name. This is not a speculative scenario. Using a tailings dam to store waste will certainly require indefinite maintenance; the question is whether PolyMet and Glencore will pay for it or leave Minnesotans on the hook. While the baseline level of support stayed roughly the same as the initial PolyMet question at 34%, opposition to the mine grew to 44%, while only 22% remained unsure.

PolyMet has been controversial since the proposal was first brought to the state more than 15 years ago, and Minnesotans can be forgiven for feeling like the facts are lost in the fog. PolyMet, Glencore, and their backers have ample resources to flood the web and airwaves with ads touting the jobs involved, the safe new technology the mine will use, and the need for copper and nickel, especially in clean energy. They neglect to acknowledge, of course, that the jobs will be temporary and few in number due to automation, no sulfide ore mine has operated in the United States without polluting the surrounding environment, and increasing recycling and recovery in the United States is a far more fruitful and sustainable solution to acquire the metals we need. PolyMet would have a harmful, permanent impact on our climate and ecosystems through its emissions and destruction of wetlands, and it threatens the water resources of an Indigenous community.

Those of us who care about Minnesota’s long-term future have work to do to show Minnesotans that this unproven copper-nickel sulfide mining proposal is wrong for our state. It will help for our state leaders to move on from PolyMet, rather than putting the profits of Glencore above the needs of our people and planet.

What you can do: If you haven’t already, you can add your name to the Move on from PolyMet website and petition to Governor Walz, and call the Governor at 651-201-3400.

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

Scientists, Indigenous organizers shed light on Line 3’s recent harms to water

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

On Thursday, MEP sponsored an online presentation, “Understanding the Line 3 Aquifer Breach and Spills,” in which geologists and Indigenous pipeline resisters shared information on the impacts that construction of the Line 3 oil pipeline is already having on our waters and ecosystems. Though science has predicted that Line 3 will harm our climate and pose a threat to Northern Minnesota waters, the presenters painted a disturbing picture of the damage that Enbridge has already inflicted on land and groundwater.

The video is now available on MEP’s YouTube channel.

Our first presenters were geologists Jeff Broberg and Dr. Laura Triplett, who began by explaining how Enbridge’s digging of a deep trench near the Clearbrook Terminal caused an aquifer breach. Earlier this year, the crews sunk sheet pilings – stabilizing structures that prevent trench collapse – deep into the earth while operating in the trench for the new pipeline. Those pilings pierced into the waters of the aquifer below the layers of earth. When the pilings were removed, water gushed upward, forming an eruption of quicksand that resembled boiling water.

The result of this breach, beyond the release of water into the trench, is that nearby ecosystems are harmed, specifically a variety of wetlands known as “calcareous fens.” These fens are highly biodiverse and sequester large amounts of carbon, but are dependent on water springing up from the aquifer. The loss of their water can dry them out, which is why permitting for this pipeline included measures meant to protect the fens.

“What we have here is a cascading series of failures,” said Broberg, “that started with the design and permitting.” Originally, he said, Enbridge’s plans presented to regulators indicated they would dig a trench only eight feet deep to protect the fens, but crews ended up digging eighteen feet deep instead to avoid the company’s other pipelines. The aquifer breach is estimated to have been releasing up to 100,000 gallons of water into the trench every day.

The breach began January 21. Over 25 million gallons have been lost. The DNR only ordered Enbridge to fix it last week, “There was a failure of the backstop that we rely on with our regulatory agency,” said Triplett. “I don’t think the system worked.”

The DNR also told Enbridge to fund an escrow with $2.75 million for the restoration of damage to the calcareous fens sensitive ecosystems that have been risked. Understanding the damage to the fens may take years to uncover. The company has also been assessed $300,000 for the water from the aquifer that has already been (25 million gallons) and will be lost by the time the aquifer is repaired, if that is even possible. This amounts to about 1 cent a gallon for this water. The DNR has also assessed a forgivable $20,000 administrative penalty order, the most allowed by state law. These do not amount to penalties or deterrence for future law violations for a company with almost $30 billion in income for the year 2020.

The presentation continued with Dawn Goodwin, an Indigenous organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network, co-founder of the RISE Coalition, and a resident of the Clearbrook area. She described how she and other Indigenous pipeline resisters have monitored Line 3 construction in treaty lands, lands on which the Ojibwe have the guaranteed right to gather resources like wild rice and fish. They have uncovered and documented spills along the line known as “frac-outs,” in which drilling fluid used in construction surges into low-pressure spaces during excavation, resulting in chemical pollution and disrupting the local hydrology.

“This is a pattern of Enbridge rushing, not reporting, and being so slow and not transparent,” said Goodwin. Like the aquifer breach, these frac-outs often go unnoticed by state authorities, and result in harm to land, water, and wildlife. The effects of this pipeline construction, coupled with climate change effects like this year’s drought, gravely threaten the culture and livelihoods of the Ojibwe.

Ron Turney, a member of the White Earth Nation and of the Indigenous Environmental Network’s media team, showed his own drone footage that has helped to identify these frac-outs, which have occurred on tributaries of the Mississippi (Turney’s section begins around 47:45 in the video). He described how Indigenous monitors identified these issues, raised them publicly, and were wrongly accused by the Pollution Control Agency of spreading disinformation. “But we have the evidence,” Turney said. “They can’t hide this from us – they can’t hide it from the public.”

100 people, including journalists and legislators, joined us for the meeting, and the most common question asked was, “What should we do?” The presenters’s responses varied in details, but they all focused on the core issue: Enbridge has repeatedly failed or refused to protect Minnesota’s environment, and our state agencies have failed to hold the company accountable. Jeff Broberg said, “We need our state elected officials to make the calls. We need our State Representatives and Senators and Governor Walz and Senator Klobuchar and Smith to call President Biden: tell him that these water permits should be abandoned.”

Both President Biden and Governor Walz have the power to halt this pipeline if they choose. Between these harms to state lands and waters, the associated cover-ups, and the catastrophic climate impacts of this pipeline, they have nothing but good reasons to do so.

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

Biden Administration report points to a new dawn for solar

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Last week, the Biden Administration published a Department of Energy report that offered a course for building up solar power in the U.S. more than tenfold, helping to meet our clean energy needs. While the report is not yet a plan, it provides a roadmap to decarbonizing the economy by 2050, and will help inform policymakers on how to get there.

The report lays out a path in which solar power is developed to generating around 45% of forecasted electricity needs in 2050. It’s a big jump from the roughly 4% it generates today, but new technologies are continuing developing new solar far less costly. And this transition would take place along scaling up of wind, geothermal, and other power sources that would help make up the gap.

Solar power is a useful technology in part because unlike, say, wind or hydro, there are no parts of the United States without sunlight. Certainly, some areas, especially in the Southwest, experience more sunlight than others, but solar is an effective source in places like Minnesota as well. Germany currently generates about 8% of its electricity from solar panels, despite having weather patterns that make it somewhat inhospitable, and frequently has a surplus of power that it sells to other European countries.

While it’s true that solar panels require space – perhaps 10 million acres to achieve the 45% figure – it favorably compares to coal in both cost and land use. Global Energy Monitor estimates that solar energy requires about 16% less land than coal. Furthermore, solar panels can be placed on rooftops, farms, and pollinator gardens, whereas coal mines irreparably damage the landscape, obliterating entire mountains.

As previously noted, Minnesota doesn’t receive as much sunlight as the states to our south, but that doesn’t mean we can’t play a big role in this transition. Currently, around 2% of our electricity is generated from solar panels, but state and utility investments are on the rise, notably in community solar gardens. And it’s worth noting that solar panels tend to work well on the cloudless days of frigid polar vortex events, when sources like natural gas are strained.

For Minnesota to take advantage of the falling costs and air quality benefits of solar – not to mention meeting our climate needs – we’ll need to invest in projects that push it forward. The Legislature passed a laudable funding package last session that will help schools and colleges install solar panels on their buildings. Xcel Energy, the state’s largest utility, has opportunities for customers to support solar garden power and incentives for home installations. More programs like these, supported by state dollars, can help move the transition along.

And as we invest in solar, we have the opportunity to remake our energy system to be more equitable, to help support communities that have been harmed by fossil fuels. Organizations like Community Power are focused on that work, helping to develop inclusive financing that give Minnesotans a chance to produce their own power without relying on personal wealth or credit score. In St. Paul, the city and the Port Authority are working to develop a 100-acre former golf course in one of the state’s most diverse neighborhoods into a carbon-free community using solar. These efforts will need more support from the state to move forward.

The Department of Energy report shows that what we need is possible – we can get to a carbon-neutral economy, powered largely by the sun, in the timescale we need. Now we need to make sure that policymakers know that it’s the right course for our state, country, and climate.
 

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

Two wins for water as rollbacks are reversed

Posted by

Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

This week, two federal decisions dealt victories to clean water, one at the national level, and one in Minnesota.

On Monday, an Arizona District Court overturned the Trump Administration’s change to the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, a change referred to by critics as the “Dirty Water Rule.” Under the Trump rule, the federal EPA and Army Corps of Engineers vastly decreased the number of waters within their jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act, mostly relinquishing authority over roughly 1 in 5 small streams and half of all wetlands previously protected. The drought that has gripped Minnesota this year is drying up the small streams and vividly showing us the waterways that have lost protection under the Dirty Water Rule.

The lawsuit to overturn the Dirty Water Rule was litigated by the environmental group Earthjustice on behalf of a group of six Indigenous tribes, including the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in Minnesota. Their cultures and livelihoods are especially reliant on water resources, and the tribes argued that the rule would cause disproportionate harm. 

The Dirty Water Rule always rested on shaky legal and scientific ground. All streams and wetlands feed into larger streams and watersheds: there are no waters that exist in a vacuum, and pollution in those small streams flow into other waters. Furthermore, the rollback especially impacted dry, Western states that have fewer and smaller permanent waterways than states like Minnesota, leaving them vulnerable to pollution. Minnesota wetlands are protected by our Wetlands Conservation Act, but what happens to wildlife in other states can dramatically impact ecosystems here – birds and fish don’t have much regard for state borders.

Now that the rollback has been overturned, it will not immediately result in full protection for streams and wetlands.The Dirty Water Rule successfully repealed the Obama Administration rule and this court decision did not restore it, although the judge in the case asked for briefings on whether to overturn the repeal. For now, protections will revert to what they were under the pre-Obama rule dating from 1986. But the EPA under President Biden is currently working on a new iteration of the rule that will almost certainly be more ambitious, and will likely have an easier path forward now that the agency no longer has to work on repealing President Trump’s “Dirty Water Rule.”

Minnesota feedlot rule

Minnesota suffered our own rollback to clean water protections earlier this year when the Legislature’s compromise Environmental Omnibus bill eliminated a commonsense restriction on spreading manure from large feedlots, aiming to reduce nitrogen runoff.

Starting in February, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (PCA) updated its permit to large feedlots, a category that includes about 1,200 of Minnesota’s largest dairy and meat producing operations. Under the revised permit rules, feedlots were barred from spreading manure on crops used to feed livestock during the first 15 days of October, unless the feedlots use practices, such as cover crops, to reduce nitrogen loss.

Manure is a major contributor to nutrient pollution in our waters, causing the buildup of toxic nitrate in aquifers that leads to unhealthy wells as well as downstream “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico. And the largest feedlots in Minnesota produce an enormous quantity of the stuff, making them a logical place to reduce runoff. The October manure restriction didn’t represent a radical solution, but it does make scientific sense: with cooler temperatures and bare soils,  early October is a time when manure runoff can easily infiltrate our groundwater. And by providing a means for feedlots to mitigate it with cover crops, the PCA sought to introduce flexibility for adapting to the permit change.

Even this commonsense protection was a bridge too far for some legislators, however, who negotiated to include a rollback of this rule in the final environmental budget and policy bill over the objections of the PCA. But the PCA pointed out then that if the EPA thought the legislation violated federal law, it would be overturned.

This week, that’s exactly what happened. The EPA sent a letter to the PCA stating that the permit change from the Legislature conflicted with federal regulations on feedlots. The repeal, it seems, ended up being more symbolic than anything, and large feedlots will have to abide by the October manure restrictions after all.

The implications for people and wildlife

These changes to water rules are more than bureaucratic tweaks: they will have real impacts on how we keep pollution out of our precious water resources, and can open the door for more ambitious action on issues like nitrate and other pollutants. They also represent an encouraging sign that the bedrock protections of the Clean Water Act are still holding strong. As our climate changes and our waters along with it, we’ll need to build on that bedrock to make sure that future generations of people and wildlife can enjoy safe, drinkable water.