Sunnier budget forecast provides opportunity to invest in protecting our future

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

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

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

What does this mean for Minnesota’s environment?

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

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

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

Soil health bill advances in the Legislature

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

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

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

Why soil health is important

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

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

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

The road to a soil health bill

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

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

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

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

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

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s the solution?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read More:

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

MEP unveils our community’s 2021 priorities

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

This week, MEP is proud to announce our 2021 Collaborative Priorities. These priorities will shape our work at the Legislature, as well as our messaging and coalition-building throughout the year.

Our collaborative priorities have been developed by MEP’s member groups, representing thousands of Minnesotans across the state. The issues we work on are a result of consensus and compromise, but that does not mean they aren’t ambitious – the challenges we face require nothing less than bold, world-shaping action.

Our North Star, running through all of these priorities, is climate action. MEP and our members recognize that the things we value – public health, clean water, pollinator habitat – all benefit from the same policies and investments that reduce our greenhouse gas impact. In 2021, we’re to focus on investing in carbon-beneficial land use and fighting the Enbridge Line 3 tar sands pipeline. We’ll push for climate impacts and resiliency to be incorporated in environmental review and state funding considerations – it’s long overdue for climate to be a key consideration in all new infrastructure and other projects.

Along those same lines, MEP will be focusing on making sure our public institutions, especially state agencies, are serving people and our environment. As we’ve seen with sulfide mining projects and oil pipelines, public institutions too often act as if industrial companies are their primary clients. Fixing this broken public trust will require changes in law, culture, and accountability systems, and we will work with our partners to develop an action plan to make it happen.

MEP has been leading on clean water issues for more than two decades, and this year, we’ll keep a particular focus on an insidious water issue: the prevalence of lead in our pipes and environment. Lead is present in paint, in drinking water infrastructure, and in habitat, and disproportionately threatens marginalized communities in Minnesota. This year, we’re building on our work in Duluth to protect residents from lead in their drinking water by bringing more awareness to this issue and developing a plan to replace more than a hundred thousand lead water lines in Minnesota. We’re also supporting a ban on lead fishing tackle and ammunition to protect people and wildlife.

MEP’s policy agenda is focused on positive, proactive measures that will improve Minnesotans’ quality of life, but we’re also well aware that opponents of environmental protections will  push their own agenda this year. We anticipate – and indeed have already seen – attacks on water quality standards, funding for environmental restoration, free speech for pipeline opponents, and critical climate and environment rules. We will team up with partners to make sure these rollbacks don’t become law.

And as always, we will support the priorities of our members and allies in the environmental community. They are advancing numerous positive priorities this year, on clean electricity, transit, clean agriculture, waste reduction, water, wildlife habitat, and pollinators. They represent years of development and study by dedicated Minnesotans of all backgrounds, with knowledge of science, economics, policy, and community needs.

These priorities can reshape Minnesota’s landscape for the better, but they won’t happen if Minnesotans don’t stand up for them. Throughout the Legislative Session, we’ll ask for your voice in support of good policies, and for pressure on lawmakers when they support harmful ones. It may sound cliché, but given the crises we face and the opportunity we have to solve them, we’re all in this together.

Minnesota lawmakers renew push for clean energy

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

This week, Governor Walz and DFL legislators unveiled a proposal to make sure Minnesota reaches 100% carbon-free electricity by the year 2040. If passed, it would represent an important effort to move Minnesota toward carbon neutrality in our fight against the climate crisis. While the legislation faces a challenging path in the Republican-controlled Senate, science makes it clear that our climate challenges compel us to move forward.

This legislative package includes requirements for utilities to switch over to renewable sources like wind and solar, investments in energy efficiency, and the retirement of fossil fuel generation. While Minnesota’s largest utilities, including Xcel Energy and Minnesota Power, are already taking major steps toward carbon-free generation, this push for 100% carbon-free would help hasten this transition and avoid dead-end pathways like coal plants being replaced by natural gas.

Targeting electricity emissions in this way is a welcome step, especially given the scope of our challenges. Minnesota is off track on reaching our emissions reduction goals, and we have limited time to get onto the path that will help avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change and allow our state and planet to heal. While President Biden is already making welcome moves to commit the United States to climate action, what we do in Minnesota is an important and necessary part of the overall effort.

However, slashing electricity emissions is only part of Minnesota’s challenge, and not the most significant part.

The largest current source of greenhouse gas emissions in Minnesota is transportation. Most of that comes from commuter vehicles – SUVs, light trucks, and cars on the road. Reducing those emissions is a daunting task, but it can be done. Our state lawmakers and planning agencies should be expressly seeking to reduce the vehicle miles traveled by individuals driving alone in cars in several ways: through improved transit, walking and biking infrastructure, and land use that helps people live close to amenities. Meanwhile, the transition to electric vehicles and a charging network that works for Minnesotans must be rapidly accelerated.

The second largest source of emissions is land use: agriculture has a tremendous impact on the carbon we emit. There are numerous changes that we need to make in agriculture – transitioning from fertilizer-heavy monocropping, halting factory farms, and introducing new crops and methods – that can not only reduce and eliminate these emissions, but use our land as a natural carbon sink. Fighting the climate crisis will require not only cutting emissions, but giving the remaining carbon somewhere safe to go, such as Minnesota forests and farmland.

Finally, there’s an elephant in the room here in Minnesota: the Line 3 tar sands oil pipeline, the oil of which would cause more yearly emissions than the entirety of our state’s economy. While the state of Minnesota recently completed its permitting of this climate monstrosity, we were thrilled to see President Biden immediately cancel permits for the Keystone XL tar sand oil pipeline running through adjacent states. We hope to see him take similar steps to derail Line 3. Like Keystone XL, this under-construction pipeline is unnecessary, destructive, and extremely hazardous to indigenous communities.

The next few years will be the decisive moment in our history for securing the future of our planet and our state. MEP and our allies will be supporting the 100% clean electricity push at the State Capitol and other ambitious efforts to make sure Minnesota leads the way to a carbon-free economy.

Newly introduced bills would protect Minnesota from sulfide mining

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

This week, lawmakers introduced bills in the Minnesota Legislature and in Congress that represent perhaps the most aggressive effort yet to create new protections for our state from copper-nickel sulfide mining. These bills are being championed by MEP member groups, and would help prevent sulfide mining pollution from destroying some of our most valuable resources.

First, on Wednesday, Minnesota Legislators introduced a bill that would enact a “prove-it-first” standard for any non-ferrous ore mine in the state. The legislation would ban any such mine from being permitted in Minnesota until the proposing company and state regulators can prove that a similar mine has operated for at least 10 years, and then shut down for an additional minimum of 10 years, without polluting the surrounding environment. No sulfide ore mine that has ever operated in the United States would meet that standard – each one of them has its own nasty track record.

This bill cuts at a key argument used by backers of Minnesota sulfide mining proposals like PolyMet and Twin Metals, which is that they can guarantee that the new mines will contain waste safely using new technology. Much of that technology is untested. Some parts of it – like the tailings dam that has been proposed for waste storage at PolyMet – have been tested and found wanting, as witnessed by the collapse of multiple tailings dams worldwide in the past few years.

The point of prove-it-first, which until recently was state law in Wisconsin, is that Minnesota should not be the testing ground for risky technology in an industry that has an abysmal track record. Our waters and wetlands in the Boundary Waters and in the St. Louis River watershed are one of our most valuable – and vulnerable – resources. A waste spillage or other mine disaster would poison these waters for centuries, and the destruction of wetlands would exacerbate the climate crisis. With that long-term perspective, 20 years of proof is an entirely reasonable requirement.

On Thursday, Minnesota Congresswoman Betty McCollum unveiled her own legislation that would specifically keep sulfide mining out of Minnesota in the watershed of the Boundary Waters. The Boundary Waters is both a top recreation destination and a highly vulnerable and interconnected ecosystem. If waste from the proposed Twin Metals mine near Ely made its way into the Boundary Waters watershed, it would quickly contaminate vast swaths of the area. 

Minnesota’s waters have great need for protection in this era of climate change, and judging by the permits that mining companies have already secured, Minnesota’s current laws are not up to the task of this protection. Too often, mining companies have been able to either influence the lawmaking process in their favor or game a regulatory process that frequently favors them. Fortunately, the tide may now be turning, as evidenced by Winona County’s success in banning frac sand mining (see news story below). Prove-it-first and protection for the Boundary Waters would be much-needed and powerful steps in the right direction, toward safeguarding our precious lands and waters.

What’s ahead in Legislation in 2021: Four Questions

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

This week, all 201 Minnesota Legislators were sworn into their seats, commencing the start of the 91st Minnesota Legislature’s first session. As they were for the past two years, the House and Senate are controlled by the DFL and Republican Party respectively, presenting a challenge to legislation. But 2021 will be different from 2020, and MEP and our allies are committed to making sure that it is for the better.

Right now, our nation and our communities are grappling with the profoundly disturbing crimes inflicted at the US Capitol on Wednesday. As of this writing, state patrol officers are still stationed outside the Minnesota State Capitol. In these times, our commitment to democratic participation, racial and environmental justice, and safety for all communities has never been more important.

Legislators face critical governance questions this year, and MEP will be pushing to make them decide in favor of the climate action, ecological restoration, and public health measures we need. Here’s a preview of some of those questions:

How do we address the budget deficit equitably? Minnesota is forecasted to deal with a $1.27 billion budget deficit from mid-2021-2023, something that the Legislature will have to take into account when crafting a funding package this year. Issues that may influence this budget include possible federal aid for local government, balancing spending and taxation, and shifting priorities. With Minnesota’s families struggling due to the pandemic, lawmakers need to find solutions that prevent further harm.

The Legislature should recognize that one important way out of this economic crisis is to invest in sustainable projects that benefit Minnesotans. Energy efficiency, replacing water infrastructure, the development of new farming systems – these are programs that create jobs in the long-term and improve our quality of life. That should be reflected in the state budget.

Recent budget omnibus bills have included policy pills that harm our environment, stripping away protections for natural resources in favor of industrial special interests. Fighting these proposals, and showing that ordinary Minnesotans oppose them, will continue to be a top MEP priority.

Can we stop Line 3 in the Legislature? A number of Legislators elected in November are strongly opposed to the Line 3 pipeline’s construction, and we deeply appreciate their efforts. However, lawmakers on the opposite side have made yearly attempts to stifle protest against the pipeline, with bills that chill free speech and threaten to divide the resistance. These bills cannot be allowed to pass.

How will we reach carbon neutrality and protect the climate? Though COVID-19 relief is at the top of mind for all of us, we cannot ignore the growing crisis of climate change. As President-elect Biden said in August, climate change is one of the four major crises America faces, along with racial injustice, the pandemic, and the suffering economy. MEP and our allies will continue to push Legislators to bring Minnesota to carbon neutrality, through efforts that cut emissions like clean transportation and electricity, and efforts that absorb emissions like climate-friendly farming systens and ecological restoration.

How can Minnesota address racial and social injustice? Events of the past year have made it clearer than ever that the United States generally – and Minnesota in particular – face a reckoning on racial inequity. The disparities between white Minnesotans and Minnesotans of color in our state are wide in areas like income, housing, public safety, environmental quality, and health. While the Legislature passed some law enforcement reforms in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder last year, much more work remains to be done.

Minnesotans’ voices will be critical. Though most legislative meetings will be held remotely this year, Minnesota legislators continue to need and want to hear their constituents’ voices. We encourage you to contact your lawmakers to let them know your priorities for 2021, and MEP will provide opportunities to do so on specific issues throughout the session.

Studies demonstrate that letting water pollution get worse has enormous cost

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Over the past several weeks, two reports on water quality highlighted the fact that water pollution is an extremely expensive problem, one that government agencies have underestimated or refused to fully address. 

Rollback of Clean Water Rule was based on dubious assumptions

The most recent report, from the External Environmental Economics Advisory Committee, researched the Trump Administration’s rollback of the Clean Water Rule, a rollback that became effective in June of this year. While it may be too early to evaluate the impact of the Trump Administration’s much weaker replacement rule, the Committee found that the agencies made assumptions about the costs and benefits of its rules that were scientifically unsound.

In creating the much-weakened rule and removing thousands of waters from federal protection, the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers treated individual streams and wetlands as “local public goods,” as if they were unconnected to other bodies of water. That’s incorrect at the foundational level. Everything flows downstream – small streams, ditches, and wetlands are vital components to a larger network of rivers.

The federal agencies also engaged in magical thinking when they promulgated the rule. They claimed that when waters are withdrawn from federal regulation, states will create their own protections that will be just as beneficial as those at the federal level. A quick glance at the history of clean water policy in the United States shows that not to be the case. Individual states have very rarely created new protections for waters when the federal government loses its jurisdiction. The national government should be setting a baseline and allowing states to go above it, not abdicating responsibility and ignoring history.

These deliberately shallow justifications by the Trump Administration skewed the cost-benefit analysis of the new rule, making it seem as though the rollback would provide much benefits much greater than the harms it would inflict. And it’s becoming more and more evident that the harms of water pollution are greater than our agencies are willing to admit, or at least act on.

Nitrate in Wisconsin’s drinking water is an expensive problem

report released in late October by a team from Clean Wisconsin, the Environmental Working Group, and the University of Wisconsin found that nitrate pollution in drinking water carries heavy costs. They analyzed data from 2010-2017 in the State of Wisconsin, and found that each year, nitrate contaminated drinking water contributed to a number of cancer cases ranging from roughly 100-300, as well as dozens of cases of babies with birth defects. They estimated that the financial costs of these nitrate-based health problems alone ranged from $23-80 million each year.

Wisconsin and Minnesota are sister states with similar population, hydrology, and industrial-scale, row-crop agriculture – especially corn and soybeans. Fertilizer from this type of farming at the industrial scale is the main factor of nitrate contamination. 

We know that nitrate is ravaging water supplies, especially in rural communities and private wells. It’s contributing to the toxification of lakes and rivers, further damaging the ecosystems that people, wildlife, and our economy relies on. While both Minnesota and Wisconsin have taken positive steps to reduce nitrate contamination, the only long-term and surefire way to fix this problem is to change the way we grow food – to introduce crops and farming methods that maintain healthy soil and reduce fertilizer use.

It can be expensive to transition to new clean water crops and farming methods. And it’s essential that farmers be supported in pioneering these techniques to make sure their financial situation benefits along with the health of the water and land. But right now, the costs of water pollution are being paid by those downstream – by people who suffer health problems from their drinking water and by ecosystems that are permanently disrupted. One way or another, water pollution comes with a bill to pay.

MEP’s work shines light on lead in Duluth drinking water

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

For months, MEP has been working to help shine a spotlight and help families in Duluth through one of the most potent household health threats there is: toxic lead in drinking water. Our work aims to help families take steps to protect themselves from the harm that lead causes

Lead is among the most common toxins encountered by families in their homes. It’s a potent neurotoxin that can cause permanent damage to nerves and vital organs, especially in children. Since governments around the world began banning lead from being used as an additive in gasoline, lead blood levels have improved, but millions of people are still at risk of exposure to lead in aging paint and in lead service lines that transport their household water. 

Cities like Duluth in the Great Lakes Basin frequently draw their water from relatively clean sources like Lake Superior. But by the time the water reaches the tap in many homes, it has already traveled through aging lead service pipes that leech the toxin into the water. People of color and low-income families are especially at risk.

There is no safe level of lead in drinking water, but the US EPA uses 15 micrograms per liter (mg/L) as a measure to trigger mandatory action. MEP set out to find more information on how this problem is impacting Duluth’s neighborhoods.

Our work so far, organized by MEP Duluth staffers Stephan Witherspoon and Andrew Slade, has tested 17 samples from homes in the Lincoln Park, Hillside, and Denfield neighborhoods. Those areas had already been identified by the Minnesota Department of Health for their relatively high levels of lead in infant blood.

We found that nine of the samples tested so far had non-detectable levels of lead, but the other eight gave cause for concern. Four had detectable levels below 5 mg/L, three had between 5 and 15 mg/L, and one had levels far above 15 mg/L. As part of our follow-up, we provided filters and other resources to help mitigate the lead. Running the tap for at least two minutes before its first use each day can help reduce the amount of lead in the water, though it isn’t foolproof.

Filters and running water down the drain is not a solution to the lead pipes problem. Aside from the long-term cost of both techniques, many families are unaware that their home pipes or service lines contain lead, and by the time they find out about their exposure, they may already suffer from the effects.

For MEP’s Stephan, there’s a clear link between the symptoms of lead poisoning and the mental health issues experienced by youth in the community. How many productive lives have been destroyed by an invisible poison in our drinking water?

The local community in Duluth has three demands for moving forward on this issue, and MEP is supporting them in this quest. First, lead testing should be readily available and free to all Duluth residents who request it, just like it is in St. Paul and other cities. The city should develop and make easily available an inventory of all lead service lines in Duluth. And it should commit to replacing all lead service lines within 10 years, using a clear funding plan that draws on city, state, and federal dollars.

Replacing lead service lines would be a fully achievable public health win. Mitigating the danger of lead paint in older homes will be a long and continual process, but targeting lead pipes can be done quickly and relatively inexpensively, and according to the MN Department of Health address about 50% of the source of lead poisoning for families. It’s time to get the lead out.

MEP would like to acknowledge the support for this project from Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation, River Network, and EcoLibrium3.