Forest Service report supports BWCA protection

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Last fall, the Biden Administration resumed the effort toward a 20-year withdrawal of federal permits for sulfide mining on federal lands surrounding the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. This week, the U.S. Forest Service took a key step forward with an Environmental Assessment of the proposed withdrawal, moving closer to long-term protection for one of our greatest water and wilderness resources.

The Environmental Assessment, which will inform the process and the Secretary of the Interior’s final decision on the withdrawal, studied the possible impacts of both the withdrawal and of allowing sulfide mines such as Twin Metals to go forward. It found, unsurprisingly, that copper-nickel sulfide mines would have negative consequences on the environment and economy of Boundary Waters area communities.

It’s no secret that sulfide mining is a dirty industry. Sulfide mining can produce acid waste and sulfates that mobilize the release of heavy metals like lead and mercury into the environment that are known neurotoxins. No such mine has ever been operated in the United States without significant pollution to the surrounding environment and harm to human health.

As the assessment recognizes, in an interconnected, water ecosystem like the Boundary Waters, such pollution spells catastrophe for waters and people downstream. And that’s not just during the mine’s operation. After the mine has been shut down, runoff of toxic substances like sulfuric acid is even more likely because of a lack of guaranteed support for monitoring and containment.

The Forest Service also notes that Minnesota tribal communities would be negatively impacted by sulfide mining, perhaps most visibly through the damage to wild rice. Wild rice is foundational to Anishinaabe culture and guaranteed to their tribes in Minnesota, and a sulfide mine would certainly impact the rice beds through sulfates downstream or changes in water levels.

The economic takeaway from the assessment is also key. The Forest Service notes that while a sulfide mine like Twin Metals would result in a short-term boom – with an uncertain number – of high-paying jobs, it would only last for the mine’s operation. After that, the boom would necessarily give way to a bust.

In the meantime, pollution and land destruction would reduce the Boundary Waters’ growing recreation economy, killing long-term jobs. In their own words, “over time the economic benefits of mining tend to be outweighed by the negative impact of mining on the recreation economy.” The mineral withdrawal is far and away the more economically sustainable option.

The next step

The release of this Environmental Assessment kicks off a 30-day period in which the Forest Service will take comments on the document. After that, the Bureau of Land Management will collect, examine, and summarize the comments so that Interior Secretary Deb Haaland can then make a decision on the withdrawal. If all goes as many MEP groups hope, this action could be the final word in the saga of the Twin Metals mine, already dealt a blow when the federal government revoked permits and the DNR then ceased work on the mine’s environmental review. 

In the long-term, this ban could protect the Boundary Waters for many years to come, but it could also be reversed by a future administration. Legislative solutions, like Representative Betty McCollum’s Boundary Waters Wilderness Protection and Pollution Prevention Act, would be more durable. And we also need protections for other vulnerable areas of the state, like the St. Louis River and Lake Superior watersheds under threat from PolyMet. Prove it First legislation, which would prevent a sulfide mine from opening in Minnesota unless a similar mine can operate and shut down safely elsewhere, would help provide permanent security for all state waters.

For now, MEP is glad to see the Forest Service move forward to keep the waters of the north clean for future generations, for wildlife and for tribal communities of today.

What you can do: Sign onto a petition to the Forest Service from WaterLegacy or the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters in support of the mining ban. 

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In east Saint Paul, a carbon-free community is in the works

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

In a departure from our usual MEP voice, this column has been written from the author’s personal perspective.

I’ll forgive you if you’re not familiar with St. Paul’s Greater East Side, the area of the city that I call home. Though it’s an area with a rich culture and history, our landmarks aren’t necessarily the best known in the Twin Cities. Today, a new development is poised to change that, to make it the home of a bright spot in climate action: a project called the Heights. This development of an urban brownfield has the chance to be one of Minnesota’s greatest opportunities to show how to accomplish sustainable development.

A little background

The Greater East Side is a square-shaped community of about 30,000 people, or one in ten St. Paulites. It’s a working class area, one of the youngest and most diverse in the entire state. Successive waves of newcomers have made a home here for generations, most recently and notably the Hmong-American community. Once Dakota land, it features high hills on one end and the now-underground Phalen Creek on the other. There are schools, stores, parks, places of worship, and all different types of housing, intersected by roads, rails, and several bus lines.

For most of a century, it was also home to the Hillcrest Golf Course, a hilly 112-acre plot of greens and trees between residential neighborhoods and the suburb of Maplewood. For some years, starting in the years when the Twin Cities was a hotbed of anti-semitism, it was St. Paul’s only Jewish golf course. It changed hands several more times until finally being sold to the St. Paul Port Authority by the local Pipefitters union.

The former golf course is currently fenced in and closed to the public.

Golf, unfortunately, isn’t the most environmentally-friendly of land uses, despite the trees and shrubs. Decades of using mercury to manage weeds and fungi have turned most of the site into a brownfield, currently unsafe for human uses. The mercury has contaminated the soil and two of the site’s small wetlands. At the moment, the course is more or less a fenced-in, polluted hole in the community. And that empty space is a big opportunity.

The carbon-free dream

The Port Authority, the City of St. Paul, and residents like me have big dreams about how to fill it, dreams that include minimizing carbon emissions on one of the most ambitious levels ever attempted. If all goes well, this development – now known as the Heights – won’t just be a sustainability trailblazer in St. Paul, not just in Minnesota, but in the entire world. By building in solar power, geothermal heating and cooling, highly efficient buildings, and advanced management of stormwater, the Heights will be an example for thousands of other communities to follow.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been a booster for this site since early in the process. I’ve showed up at the neighborhood events, filled out the surveys, and participated on a workgroup to help develop and finalize the sustainability plan for the site. My perspective on the Heights is one of many, and I’m not an expert on all of the housing and economic development aspects of the plan, but the sustainability angle has deeply impressed me.

Earlier this month, the St. Paul City Council approved the Hillcrest Master Plan and zoning updates for the site, the broad blueprint that will allow the Port Authority to move forward with more specific plans. The Council and the relevant city commissions took input from residents, local business owners, and housing and sustainability advocates on what needs to happen to make the site a success. No one has gotten 100% of what they wanted, and some of the details on housing stock, businesses, and outdoor spaces have yet to be decided. But the move forward is an exciting one at a time when climate action is more urgently needed than ever.

A climate action model

The Port Authority and the City’s intention for the development is carbon neutrality, using the U.S. Green Building Council’s platinum-level LEED certification for Cities and Communities as its framework. This certification covers the materials used, energy consumption and generation, water infrastructure, waste, natural systems, and other related categories.

In order to achieve this bold, necessary goal, the Master Plan calls for low-carbon materials (as opposed to intensive ones like concrete) in buildings wherever possible, as well as well-insulated and otherwise highly efficient construction. Wherever possible, energy will be generated on the site with solar panels and geothermal systems to avoid the use of fossil fuels, and may be managed with a district energy system to maximize efficiency. The use of fossil gas will be avoided wherever possible in favor of safer carbon-free technology.

Land use will also benefit the site’s carbon neutrality and ecological benefits. While most of the trees currently on the golf course will have to be removed as part of the soil remediation, the species that will replace them will be chosen for their ability to sequester carbon and adapt to climate change. Wherever possible, landscaped areas will be planted with native vegetation friendly to pollinators and wildlife. The wetlands that can’t be saved due to mercury will be replaced on site and integrated into parkland and a green stormwater management system.

At each stage of the public input process, transportation was brought up as one of the stickiest and most important sustainability issues the site faces, especially given that it’s Minnesota’s number one source of carbon emissions. The area isn’t yet directly served by public transit, and the bike and pedestrian connections need improvement, so in the long-term, working with Metro Transit, Ramsey County, and the city will be essential. Installing electric charges will help mitigate the vehicle miles we can’t replace with transit, biking, and walking.

The development’s land use is also projected to help with transportation emissions. By locating entry-level, well-paying light industrial and other jobs on part of the site, the Heights will provide job opportunities within walking distance to new residents and longtime neighbors. It can’t guarantee that the employees will all be local, but it will certainly help in a neighborhood where two-thirds of all workers have a commute of 20 minutes or more.

All in all, the Greater East Side will gain approximately 1,000 units of housing and 1,000 jobs, new parks and other green space, and new connections to Maplewood – all while tackling the climate crisis head on.

What needs to happen

Because this type of sustainable development is unprecedented, it’s going to take funding from various sources to get it underway. Though infrastructure like roads can be funded with sales of the land to interested buyers – who have already begun to emerge – the site will need both public and private support to get it done. The Legislature will need to be convinced that this project is worth investing in.

Whatever the final price tag, this project will be well worth it. I write that not just because I’ll get to enjoy the benefits of the site directly, but because it will be an example, a template for what the world needs to do to confront the climate crisis in a way that protects future generations. What we do on the East Side will matter to the world. It might even help to fix it.

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Defense Production move a win for climate and energy bills

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Last week, President Joe Biden announced that his administration would use its trade authority and employ the Cold War-era Defense Production Act to address one of the country’s most fundamental security issues: our need for clean, reliable energy. President Biden’s move would freeze tariffs on many imported solar panels and dramatically expand domestic manufacturing of products like heat pumps and weatherization components, ramping up our transition to clean energy.

At a time when Minnesota and the nation are struggling to cut emissions at the scale needed to confront climate change, this is great news – and a credit to the climate activists who have been pushing for this move. It’s also an entirely appropriate use of the Defense Production Act – study after study shows that our country’s biggest security threat is climate disruption and energy woes.

Harnessing the wind and sun are the only ecologically and economically viable path to face these challenges, and the President’s order is a step in the right direction. We were glad to see Minnesota’s largest newspaper recognize this in an editorial last week.

The solar energy portion of this order will help stabilize an industry facing challenges with securing parts from East Asia and bring solar projects all over the country to the building phase. That will both reduce carbon and money – thanks to new technology and economies of scale, solar is now considered the cheapest source of electricity in history.

In Minnesota, solar is only about 3% of our electricity mix, but that number is growing alongside wind power, which generates about one-fifth of our power. More panels, storage, and upgrades to our electrical grid through this executive order will allow us to take advantage of homegrown energy and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. After all, Minnesota has no major reserves of natural gas, petroleum, or coal. It’s also a move in favor of reliability – as we saw from Texas’s recent energy woes that spilled into Minnesota customers’ bills, natural or “fossil” gas is by no means a safe or stable source of electricity.

With our electricity generation mix getting cleaner, the simultaneous challenge is replacing the ways we heat our buildings with electric power. That’s where heat pumps come in: these devices can both heat and cool a home far more efficiently than gas furnaces. To be effective in hot-summer/cold-winter states like Minnesota, however, they must be paired with better insulation, another product covered under the President’s decision.

At a time when progress on clean energy and reducing building emissions is struggling to get legislative traction, we need all the help we can get from the President’s executive pen.

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Special session may follow after Legislative fizzle

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Minnesota’s 2022 Legislative Session reached its constitutional deadline after a frantic but ultimately unfruitful week of activity at the Capitol. From MEP’s perspective, more progress was left on the table than passed despite a record-high budget surplus, but a few bright spots on MEP priorities did make it through the gridlock, and a special session may follow to get more done. (For more, see MEP’s Legislative wrap-up)

What passed

Of major importance to MEP and our members this session was the Agriculture Omnibus bill. MEP spoke out in support of higher levels of funding proposed by the House of Representatives, but the final number was far closer to the lower level offered by the Senate. Despite this, MEP was pleased to see investments passed to support longtime priorities, namely the development of crops and practices that protect Minnesota’s lands and waters.

The Legislature passed additional funding for the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative, which works to develop crops that provide food and other products and generate farm income while also supporting soil health and water quality and helping to fight climate change. The bill also supports the development of supply chains for those crops so that they can achieve economic success and broaden their reach. Combined, those investments will total $1.26 million from 2024 to 2025.

The Agriculture bill also supports soil healthy farming practices, small farms and processing operations, and new and emerging farmers and related businesses. These farmers are often early adopters of sustainable land use and MEP is pleased to see them get support.

The Legislature also passed a bill to spend money from the funds created by Minnesota voters with the Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Constitutional Amendment. While it should be par for the course for the Legislature to pass investments from these voter-created sales tax funds, it’s still encouraging to see them make it through to approval. The Outdoor Heritage and Clean Water Fund dollars in particular will support numerous vital habitat, conservation, and clean water. MEP expressed concerns earlier in the session that the final Legacy bill wouldn’t respect the Clean Water Council’s role in directing funding and instead use Clean Water funds for unvetted projects, and we are pleased to see that the final bill aligns with our values.

Unfortunately, that’s not what happened with Minnesota’s other major dedicated environmental fund, the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund. While the Legislature did pass a bill to spend ENRTF dollars, mostly on worthy environmental projects, it contained funding for projects that have not been recommended by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR.) That may seem a technical point, but the LCCMR exists to make sure that the public has a clear role in how ENRTF dollars are spent. By bypassing the LCCMR and funding their own projects, the Legislature diminishes the public trust in this voter-created lottery fund and sets a bad precedent for future raids. 

What didn’t pass

Compared with the productive investments of two years ago and the hopes that MEP had for this session at its beginning, the Legislature left a mountain of money on the table at a time when Minnesota’s climate, people, and natural resources need urgent investments.

The session reached its end with no energy and jobs bill, which could have funded investments in solar energy, electric vehicle infrastructure, and job training that would help put Minnesota on the path to a decarbonized economy. No environment bill, which had the chance to invest in natural landscapes and improved waste programs while setting policies that would rectify environmental injustices, protecting communities disproportionately harmed by pollution. And no state government finance and transportation bill, the failure of which will shortchange Minnesota’s public transit, making it harder to access federal funds.

On the other hand, policies that would have taken Minnesota backward – mostly proposed by the Senate – also failed to pass. These proposals included giveaways to the mining, plastics, and factory farming industries, restrictions on the public voice and open access to information, and a rule to prevent local communities from banning new natural gas connections.

The next chapter

Governor Walz and House and Senate leadership are currently discussing the possibility of a special session. Unlike in 2020, they won’t be automatically called back at a regular interval as there is no longer a legal state of peacetime emergency, so the Governor must call the two houses back once an agreement is reached.

MEP believes that Legislators should return to the Capitol to finish their work. We may not like all possible outcomes of the omnibus bills still on the table, but at this critical time, Minnesota needs investments in our lands, our infrastructure, and our communities in order to tackle the climate crisis. Leaving money on the table until next year is not a responsible option when every month matters to provide a livable future for Minnesotans.

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Minnesota has every reason to reforest and re-prairie

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

On Monday, the City of Minneapolis and the city’s Parks and Recreation Board unveiled a $1 million plan to plant 200,000 trees throughout the city. City and Parks officials said that the plan represents a key investment in Minneapolis’s climate action and resilience efforts and in environmental justice.

This program is a good example of one of the best investments that we can make in Minnesota’s future: the restoration of our forests, prairies, and wetlands. Putting money into revitalizing these ecosystems, sometimes mistakenly identified as “non-productive” land, will help reduce and absorb climate emissions, protect our species as climate change continues, and improve Minnesotans’ health by helping to clean our air and water and cool our communities.

The state of our trees

Paul Bunyan may be only a legend, but it’s no exaggeration to say that various activities have been cutting down and otherwise reducing Minnesota’s forests. Forests now cover just over a third of Minnesota’s land area; prior to the ramping up of European colonization in the mid-19th century, it was nearly two-thirds. Trees were cut in vast swaths for timber, farmland, and development, and further reduced by wildfires.

A tree affected by emerald ash borer

Today, Minnesota’s trees face these same old threats along with new ones. Climate change is putting pressure on many of Minnesota’s tree species, especially conifers like pines. Emerald ash borer and Dutch Elm disease have gutted community tree cover, stripping boulevards of vital shade and cooling and forcing municipalities to choose between planting new trees quickly or letting communities get hotter. 

Back to the Minneapolis program – in the overall scheme of Minnesota’s forests, 200,000 trees isn’t much compared with the more than 360 million currently estimated in the state, but this program will have meaningful impacts on the lives of residents. Tree planting under this program using American Rescue Plan dollars will help to reduce the urban heat island effect across the city, and is especially targeted to Green Zones – areas that face concentrated poverty, pollution, and racial, political, and economic marginalization. A recent study found that former redlined areas – predominantly communities of color historically excluded from other parts of Minneapolis – suffer temperatures on average 11°F hotter than non-redlined areas due to a lack of tree cover and proximity to heat traps and sources like highways.

To keep building on this and similar programs, MEP recently worked with our member oreganizations to speak out in favor of legislation funding $11 million to replace ash trees and $8 million for an accelerated conservation tree planting program to help advance this work around the state. As of this time, the fate of that funding is still undetermined.

The once-proud prairies

The tale of prairies in Minnesota is yet another of destruction after European settlement. Minnesota’s tallgrass prairies were once a place of abundant food for the Dakota people, teeming with bison. But after colonizers stole the land and killed off most of the bison, that rich prairie soil was converted to grow crops like corn, soybeans, and sugar beets. These crops feed a lot of people and fuel millions of vehicles, but their repeated planting over generations has stripped the soil of carbon and nutrients – previously held in by prairie plants – and contributed to climate change and species loss. Less than 1% of the prairies that used to cover vast acres of Minnesota remain.

We can’t wind the clock back to 1850, but we can work to restore prairie where possible, and to make cropland act more like prairie in the environmental benefits it provides. Also among the environment provisions MEP and our members support this year is $10 million for the Conservation Reserve Program State Incentive to keep or enroll land in conservation, $30 million for the federally-based Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program for similar efforts, and one-time funding of $5 million and ongoing annual funding of $1.25 million for Lawns to Legumes, a program that helps Minnesotans replace turf grass lawns with plants that provide habitat and hold water and carbon in the soil.

Wetlands and peatlands

Finally, there are the watery, carbon-rich ecosystems of our wetlands and peat soils. These lands are among the most vital carbon-capture treasures Minnesota has, and they’re under threat by development.

For decades of Minnesota history, wetlands were considered by many to be useless, swampy tracts of wasteland to be drained for farmland, which significantly reduced their ability to help mitigate climate change. The 1991 Wetlands Conservation Act helped to stop further damage to these vital carbon sinks by requiring developers to either avoid wetland destruction or replace wetlands destroyed. A new wetland, however, is not of equal value to an older one even given the same acreage. Major projects that destroy vast acreages of wetlands are a net carbon bomb, even if they create new wetlands elsewhere. The PolyMet mine, for example, would threaten our water and destroy more than 900 acres of mature wetlands; its permit to do so is currently suspended due to water-related objections by the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

MEP worked with our member organizations to speak in support of legislative provisions to create a peatland protection program and to invest $5 million in enhancing grasslands and restoring wetlands across the state.

The way forward

In order to stave off climate change and its ill effects on our health, Minnesota needs to get serious about ramping up efforts to restore natural vegetation. We need a new paradigm that recognizes and respects the role that plants, trees, prairies, wetlands and peatlands play within our ecosystem and for the well-being of humanity. Just because we don’t directly harvest it, doesn’t mean it’s not sustaining our lives. 

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Where things stand at the Capitol in session’s final days

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Much like the arrival of warm weather here in Minnesota, the final week of the 2022 Legislative Session has snuck up on many of us. With the regular session’s constitutionally set last day landing on May 23rd, the House and Senate are working to negotiate a final set of bills to send to Governor Walz.

The dynamics in play this year can make it tricky to predict what will happen. Minnesota has a large budget surplus and plenty of needs, including infrastructure investments, drought relief, and public health. But it’s also an election year for the Governor and both legislative bodies have new district maps, which means that each lawmaker is feeling the pressure from their respective parties and constituents.

For Minnesota’s natural resources, health of our communities, and climate action, MEP is feeling cautiously optimistic at this stage, and our team is actively communicating with legislators to support bills that will move us forward, not backward. Here’s where things stand on our community’s key priorities:


MEP is impressed with provisions in both the House and Senate versions of the Agriculture and Housing Omnibus Bill this year. Both versions invest supplemental funding in a longtime MEP priority: the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative. Forever Green conducts vital research and development of environmentally-friendly crops that will be a game-changer for Minnesota’s water, soil, and economy. The bill also includes support for the economic development that needs to happen to keep scaling up Forever Green crops and related supply chains.

Both versions also contain provisions for supporting new farmers and processors, boosting soil healthy farming practices, and providing training. In many cases, these provisions will advance equity by especially benefiting people of color and immigrant farmers.

MEP’s key point of advocacy at this stage is asking that the Conference Committee negotiating this bill adopt the higher House-proposed funding levels; we sent a letter of support for our coalitional position earlier this week.

Energy and Climate

There’s a lot to like in the large Jobs, Energy, and Commerce Omnibus bill (SF 4091) as well, though once again, we find that the House bill is closer to MEP’s priorities. Both versions contain significant investments in solar energy on public infrastructure like schools. The House language also contains significant funding for solar on housing, electric vehicle charging stations around the state, weatherization for homes, equitable energy job training, and access to federal dollars for infrastructure. In most cases, we hope to see the House provisions adopted, as they advance the Minnesota Climate Action Plan released earlier this year.

On the other hand, we are concerned about Senate provisions in the bill that would be hazardous for Minnesota’s energy future and could threaten the health of our people. One provision lifts Minnesota’s moratorium on issuing a certificate of need for new nuclear generating plants. At this point, Minnesota and the nation have still not adequately addressed the issue of nuclear waste storage. This directly threatens the Prairie Island Indian Community due to the nuclear power plant – and its highly radioactive waste – already sitting in its community.

Another harmful provision would prevent cities, counties, and other local governments from adopting a ban on new natural gas and propane. Climate science tells us that we can’t afford to keep building new fossil fuel infrastructure like gas lines, no matter how much gas companies claim their product is “clean.” Zero-emission alternatives to gas exist and are effective in Minnesota’s climate, and communities should be able to ban new gas hookups if they choose.

MEP will be submitting a letter expressing the positions of our coalition and keeping in close contact regarding this legislation.

Environment and Natural Resources

The Environment and Natural Resources Bill is a true study in contrasts, with little overlap between the House and Senate versions.

The House language contains boosted funding for land conservation, prairie and forest restoration, composting, and healthy soils. It also prioritizes environmental justice with provisions that would make permitting decisions more responsive to the needs of communities disproportionately affected by pollution, which tend to be communities of color, Indigenous  and low-income communities. It advances a key MEP priority of lead service line replacement so that no Minnesotan will have to worry about lead poisoning in their home water pipes. And it begins to create protections against lead for wildlife, requiring nontoxic hunting ammunition in certain areas and helping support safe disposal for lead tackle.

The Senate bill is far less friendly to the environment, proposing rollbacks to key protections for our people and natural resources, and several provisions are simply giveaways to polluting industries. One provision would essentially push state agencies to assume that all mining proposals should be permitted and force them to review and approve them on an accelerated timeline, running roughshod over public process. Another would create a new category of recycling for the chemical plastic industry and exempt it from existing rules. Still another would create new, specific rules for the sugar beet processing industry with the likely effect of making it less regulated.

Clean water is treated almost as an inconvenience in the Senate version. It would attack protections for calcareous fens – a rare and vulnerable wetland habitat – weaken the state’s definition of “sustainable” use of groundwater, and strip away the DNR’s ability to manage the state’s Public Waters Inventory, a vital tool to protect the state’s water resources.

These provisions and several others would have the effect of chilling public participation and oversight of environmental decisions, reducing the information that agencies may provide to the public, restricting who may petition for environmental review of a project by their county of residence, and preventing agencies from issuing guiding information on statues and rules.

We hope that the final environment bill will take Minnesota forward, not backward. MEP has developed a letter expressing the positions of our coalition and will be keeping in close contact regarding this legislation

Transportation and Capital Investment

At this stage, the House and Senate is negotiating a transportation package under its State Government Finance bill and has yet to pass bills necessary for a conference committee for capital investment, which will mainly concern bonding.

As the Star Tribune article below notes, the House transportation bill invests heavily in clean transportation, including buses, passenger rail, and electric vehicles. This would help Minnesota reduce our emissions and protect public health. The Senate bill mostly doubles down on highway expansions and interchanges while deliberately attacking light rail and bus rapid transit. MEP strongly supports investments in transit and will be communicating our priorities to the Conference Committee when one is established. 

We also hope to see a capital investment bill that further boosts replacement of lead service lines in homes across Minnesota.

With only a few days of negotiations remaining, the Legislature faces an uphill task. As they enter their hardest week, we’re encouraged by the Minnesotans across the state asking them to put our people and planet first. 

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

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

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

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

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

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

The fight against PolyMet pollution

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

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

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

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

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

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New Blue Line route is an environmental justice win

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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As Legislature returns, Senate environment bill is riddled with issues

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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