Twin Cities lower residential speed limits, improving community safety

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By Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Last week, the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul announced a major policy change to increase safety for pedestrians, drivers, and cyclists in both cities: the vast majority of road miles within the two cities will have speed limits decreased from 30 mph to 20 mph, while arterial street speeds will be pegged at 25 mph. This change will be implemented over the course of several months, and street signs changes are scheduled to be completed this fall.

The 20 mph streets include most of those in residential neighborhoods, while 25-mph arterial roads include many transit routes and the downtown areas of both cities. This change does not affect county or state-owned roads, such University Avenue, which will remain at 30 mph or other posted speeds, but it impacts the vast majority of the hundreds of miles of roadway within the two cities.

On the surface, this change may appear a simple step. To be sure, it requires signage updates, traffic light changes, enforcement, and public education, but it doesn’t require the building of major new infrastructure or road repaving to have positive safety impacts.

Granted, many people currently drive over the speed limit by as much as 10 mph. But what may seem like a minor reduction in the speed limit can make a major difference in the rate of accidents and their survivability.

For starters, driving 20 mph rather than 30 or 40 simply gives a driver more time to react to people and objects around them – and for others to respond to the driver’s actions. In addition, the laws of physics mean that there is a steep curve relating speed to injuries and fatalities in a collision. When a car traveling 20 mph hits a pedestrian, the average pedestrian has less than a 1 in 10 chance of being killed. At 30 mph, the odds double to 1 in 5. At 40 mph, the average fatality rate is nearly 1 in 2. Every mile per hour reduction from lethal speeds can save lives.

Overall, we’ve seen an increase in pedestrian crashes in Minnesota over the past decade – in 2018, there were more than 1000 such collisions reported. Minnesota’s pedestrian crash fatality rate is lower than the US as a whole, but hasn’t improved on average in the last decade.

How this change can improve the Twin Cities’ environment

Obviously, a neighborhood in which people can be less afraid of being injured or killed in a vehicle collision is a healthier environment for everyone involved. But what about the air pollution and carbon impact of lower city speeds?

In Energy News, Frank Jossi writes that on their own, it’s not clear that lower residential speeds make much direct difference in overall vehicle emissions, because cars operate most efficiently at low highway speeds, around 55 mph. It’s also worth noting that the design of roads and land use in neighborhoods are also major factors in both actual speeds driven and overall vehicle pollution.

We know that one of the most needed climate solutions is to reduce vehicle miles traveled (while electrifying the miles that remain.) Using speed limits to make it safer for people to bike and walk on residential streets (especially those without sidewalks or bike lanes) is therefore an efficient way to help individuals take action for the climate. It will take more work and investment to make these modes more accessible for Minnesotans, but it’s a great step in the right direction toward centering people over individual vehicles.

Legislative action paved the way

It’s worth noting that this policy change was only possible because of a law the Legislature passed last year to give a city authority to pass safer speed limits than the statewide standard. Like many issues ranging from plastics bags to pesticides, state lawmakers formerly preempted communities from taking local action to improve health and safety, and we’re encouraged by this step in the right direction.

We look forward to observing and enjoying the safety brought by this local action, which may help lead other Minnesota cities to similarly shift to safer speeds. Our communities and the environments we live in will be better off if we drive less overall and drive more safely when we do.


Our coverage of Minnesota’s environmental issues is made possible by our dedicated supporters. Consider supporting MEP with a small contribution of whatever you can afford. Thank you for reading!

Climate Action Caucus unveils exciting project proposals

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By Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

On Monday, the Minnesota House Climate Action Caucus unveiled “Minnesota Can-Do Climate Actions,” a package of bills to invest $191.5 million from the projected state budget surplus in one-time spending into Minnesota communities for clean energy, clean transportation, and conservation efforts.

Last week, we wrote about how Minnesota can and should use bonding dollars to boost our climate efforts. This one-time spending would complement these bonding investments, focusing on categories that don’t fit bonding parameters.

These projects all have major benefits for climate action in Minnesota. They won’t solve the climate crisis by themselves, of course, but climate action is contagious. Investing in benefits like clean transportation and energy efficiency makes a real difference now, but also helps to provide communities with confidence, know-how, and inspiration to drive their own efforts and keep moving even faster. And they all have co-benefits to the communities they would serve – supporting jobs, lowering energy costs, and improving the health of residents.

The Can-Do Climate Actions cover several categories:

  • Energy Efficiency – these funds would provide grants to upgrade homes, businesses, nursing homes, and schools so that they can operate more efficiently, wasting less electricity and natural gas and cutting down on both emissions and power costs.
  • Solar – these funds would help schools and homeowners install solar panels, providing some of the same benefits as energy efficiency projects.
  • Transportation – these funds would help provide electric vehicles for transit services and school districts and provide rebates for purchasers of personal EVs. This electrification effort targets one of the top two sources for greenhouse gas emissions in Minnesota, and it promises to improve community health. Electric buses emit none of the air pollutants that make people sick, and to which children are especially vulnerable.
  • Local government – these funds would help communities plan and move forward on their own efforts to reduce carbon emissions.
  • Natural resources and carbon storage – these funds would boost conservation of natural areas, efforts to combat and deal with Emerald Ash Borer, and research into carbon sequestration that relies on natural systems – all powerful tools to help Minnesota’s plantlife be part of the overall climate solution.

How to help these projects move forward

Lawmakers are increasingly recognizing the scope of the climate challenge we face, but we can’t take it for granted that climate legislation will pass this year. Virtually no energy legislation passed in the Legislature in 2019, and we don’t have time for another unproductive session. Here’s how you can help make sure the MN Can Do package moves forward:

  • Use our action alert system to email lawmakers and Governor Walz, asking them to support and prioritize these projects over the next several months
  • Call Governor Walz’s office at 651-201-3400 to ask that he include the Can-Do Climate Actions in his budget proposal.

It’s Minnesota’s time to lead boldly on climate action. We’ve talked about our emissions goals and joined the U.S. climate alliance – now let’s put our money where our mouth is.

How the Legislature can bond for climate this session

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By Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Last week, we offered a brief preview of the Legislature’s work in the 2020 session, which began on Tuesday. One of the crucial aspects of this session is its traditional status as a bonding year. Bonding allows the state to borrow money to finance capital projects – mostly including new infrastructure construction, upgrades, and improvements to Minnesota landscapes – by selling general-obligation bonds. The debt and interest on the bonds is paid off over a number of future years. 

Because Minnesota has an AAA credit rating and interest rates are generally low, financing these projects is highly affordable, and provide a great opportunity to invest in projects that make our state more livable and more sustainable – that is, if our state leaders can agree on a bonding package.

In 2018, Governor Mark Dayton reluctantly signed a bonding bill that included no funding for public transit and raided the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund for unconstitutional projects. Two years prior, the House and Senate were unable to come to an agreement on a bonding package, but managed to pass one that was signed at the end of the 2017 session.

There’s ample reason to think that a bonding bill will pass this year, though the final dollar amount is in dispute: Governor Walz has called for $2 billion in new investments, while Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka has signaled that his caucus would prefer less than $1 billion.

What does this mean for climate action?

Bonding gives our state a chance to take immediate, powerful action to combat our two largest sources of greenhouse emissions: transportation and land use/agriculture, as well as smaller but significant sources like buildings and solid waste.

To clean up transportation, we know that we need to reduce overall vehicle miles traveled and electrify the miles that remain. Along those lines, the state should:

  • Invest in paths and safety upgrades that promote safe biking and walking across the state.
  • Provide grants to transit providers in Greater Minnesota to maintain facilities, improve or expand transit service.
  • Conduct design and construction on new busway routes and passenger rail.
  • Help local governments and state agencies install fast-charging infrastructure for electric vehicles on government properties.

Agriculture and land use provide an opportunity not to only reduce emissions, but also to absorb them. The state should:

  • Boost funding for the Conservation Reserve Easement Program, which supports farmers in planting conservation acres to provide wildlife habitat, which helps to absorb carbon.
  • Fund the acquisition and improvement of public lands, including reforestation.
  • Fund the Reinvest in Minnesota program, which pays farmers and landowners to establish permanent perennial land cover. This program has the twin goals of helping farmers who face financial hardship in the midst of the farm crisis and promoting soil health and carbon sequestration.
  • Funding research at the University of Minnesota at Morris into how rotational grazing can help turn animal agriculture into a carbon sink, rather than a climate stressor.

And as we wrote in January, MEP strongly supports efforts to make our communities’ water infrastructure more effective and more climate-resilient to safeguard Minnesotans’ health.

There are many other good bonding projects being put forth for the environment this session, but MEP seeks to emphasize to lawmakers that climate action can’t be an afterthought when it comes to these bonding dollars: it should be at the center.

Good bonding should be complemented with good policy

There is energy this session in both houses of the Capitol to accelerate the transition to clean electricity. The Senate has already unveiled a Clean Energy First bill that contains elements of a House bill that failed last session. While Clean Energy First is an important policy tool, other provisions in the bill prevent it from representing real climate progress, as MEP and our partners said in a Star Tribune op-ed yesterday. We eagerly await the release of stronger climate legislation during this session, and we’ll be ready to offer more analysis and testimony to help shape bills for the better.

The complicated process of crafting a bonding bill can make it somewhat inaccessible and opaque to Minnesotans outside the Capitol, but the lawmakers who take on the task are usually receptive to feedback from constituents. We strongly recommend that Minnesotans talk their to lawmakers about prioritizing the climate crisis this session, and making sure we get a bonding bill that moves us forward.

Can we protect nature by giving it legal rights?

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Intro image
Photos © iStockphoto.com/BrianLasenby

By Emily Levang, Environmental Writer. Originally posted at Ensia.

Around the world, communities are using “Rights of Nature” laws to defend waterways, species and more from human threats

February 4, 2020 — A great blue heron walks slowly on long legs. A loud splash just might signal the presence of an endangered lake sturgeon. At the headwaters of the Great Lakes, North America’s largest freshwater estuary teems with life. This place called Gichigami-ziibi in native Anishinaabemowin — the St. Louis River in English — is rich in biodiversity and an important place for migratory birds and native fish.

This body of water in Duluth, Minnesota, is also rich in challenges. Forty years ago, U.S. Steel left behind what has been called the “most widely contaminated” Superfund site in the Rust Belt, where it’s still not safe to eat the fish or swim in the water. Currently over US$300 million is being invested into restoration. At the same time, concerned citizens worry that upstream the same river is threatened by two proposed projects: an open-pit copper-nickel mine that would store hazardous waste in an already aging and leaking dam, and an oil pipeline that would bring the ongoing threat of spills.

The stakes are high, especially since the St. Louis River feeds Lake Superior, which holds 10% of our entire world’s fresh surface water.

The St. Louis River, which flows into the western end of Lake Superior, is a focal point for efforts to protect nature by recognizing it as having legal rights. Photos © iStockphoto.com | Jacob Boomsma

In August 2019, a group of citizens met in Duluth to learn about an unconventional strategy that could protect this place and potentially change its story going forward. Rights of Nature is a growing international movement that recognizes species and ecosystems not simply as resources for humans to use, but as living entities with rights of their own. Twenty people from different backgrounds attended the gathering: activists and organizers, grandmothers, a Catholic priest and an Indigenous elder, each with their own concerns about the ecosystem. Now community members are working on a ballot initiative for 2020 to recognize rights of the estuary.

This way of seeing the natural world is fundamental to many Indigenous worldviews. If Rights of Nature finds a place in Western law, it could transform our ability to protect nature.

Key Differences

Rights of Nature differs from conventional environmental protection in three key ways.

First, with Rights of Nature, communities work together outside of the regulatory system to establish legal rights. Under conventional environmental law, “communities can’t prohibit what state law permits,” says Thomas Linzey, executive director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit law firm. Linzey says rights-based law steps outside of the state permitting system entirely, placing the power in people’s hands to establish “constitution-type” rights for nature that could eventually take precedence over regulations.

For example, people in Duluth who are concerned about mercury, asbestos, cadmium, lead and arsenic ending up in their drinking water as a result of the proposed copper-nickel mine upstream are funneled toward the state regulatory system, where their primary recourse is to comment on the project’s Environmental Impact Statement, fight permits in court and struggle to uphold pollution standards. But the regulatory system defines what, where and how much pollution is allowed, not if the pollution is allowed. By recognizing the rights of nature, the community can make protecting the ecosystem the top order of business.

“The American legal system has been flexible enough to expand rights and legal personhood to slaves, women, children and corporations,” then–University of California, Berkeley, law student Allison Katherine Athens wrote in Ecology Law Quarterly in 2018. That, Athens wrote, sets a precedent for expanding who and what has rights.

Second, Rights of Nature laws are enforced differently than other environmental protections.When a community bill of rights is adopted into law, it designates a guardian to enforce the rights of an ecosystem. Duluth residents would be the guardians, who could then take action to ensure that the estuary’s legal rights are upheld.

A third key difference is that Rights of Nature attempts to incorporate Indigenous worldviews into the Western legal framework. In the Anishinaabe cosmology, Mother Earth comes before people, and there’s a responsibility to care for rivers because they are her veins. It’s a worldview that includes reciprocity between humans and nature, rather than a hierarchy that places humans above nature — and some humans above other humans.

This shift in worldview means treating both nature and Indigenous peoples differently, including honoring Native leadership. In order for it to be truly different from other environmental protections, the movement for Rights of Nature will need to have “genuine Indigenous voices, thought and leadership,” says Anishinaabe elder Ricky DeFoe. DeFoe says this begins with “each of us doing the work to decolonize our own minds.”

“If you’re going to be an ally,” he says, “stand behind us, beside us. We have our own speakers, orators, scholars, thinkers.”

Exist, Flourish, Thrive, Regenerate

The Rights of Nature concept has been gaining ground over the past decade. Ecuador wrote rights-based protection of nature into its constitution in 2008, so that any citizen can go to court on behalf of nature.

Thanks to legislation passed in 2017, the Whanganui River in New Zealand now has the ability to defend itself from harm in court. Photo courtesy of Evan Goldenberg from Flickr, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

In New Zealand, the Indigenous Māori people worked with the government to establish rights for the Whanganui River. As a result of the law passed in 2017, the river can be represented in court by a governing body made up of two appointed representatives; one from the Māori, and one from the national government. For Māori leaders, this is more than a legal win: It is the beginning of a process of regaining the reciprocal relationship with the river that was lost in colonization.

In the United States, Linzey says, some three dozen communities in Oregon, California, Ohio, New Mexico, Colorado, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and New Hampshire have laws that acknowledge legally enforceable rights for ecosystems: the right to exist, flourish, thrive and regenerate. In addition, communities like Toledo, Ohio; Grant Township in Pennsylvania, and Pittsburgh are adopting bills of rights that establish the right to local self-government, the right to a healthy environment, the right to clean water, and protection for the local environment. This challenges the belief that nature is property, and the idea that state and federal laws prevail over local governance.

In Minnesota in 2018, the White Earth Band of Ojibwe passed a law in tribal court protecting the rights of manoomin (wild rice), the first law in the world recognizing that a specific species has rights. If the city of Duluth decides to acknowledge the existence of the rights of the St. Louis River Estuary and the wild rice that grows there, it would be the first municipality in the U.S. to recognize rights for an estuary through local law, by amending the city charter.

Mixed Success

Not everyone, of course, agrees with the Rights of Nature approach. Some argue that nature is an object and should not have rights. Others contend we should fix how we apply rights law to humans before bringing nature into the picture.

Where it has been adopted, the approach has met with mixed success. The world’s first legal test of the Rights of Nature approach took place in Ecuador in 2011. The Provincial Court of Justice of Loja ruled in favor of the Vilcabamba River as a plaintiff on the basis that the river has the right to flow and be healthy.

With support from local citizens, Lake Erie gained legally enforceable rights in 2019. Photo courtesy of The Blade | Katie Raush

In the U.S., Lake Erie gained legally enforceable rights for nature in 2019 through a citizen group called Toledoans for Safe Water. However, Drewes Farms Partnership, an Ohio agribusiness, is challenging the law, contending that the city of Toledo didn’t have the authority to adopt it. Some environmentalists worry that even if the law stands, the designated guardian may not have the resources to defend it, especially when faced with corporations that have much more money to dedicate to a lawsuit.

Whole New World

However it plays out, Rights of Nature offers a potentially transformative approach to environmental advocacy by offering an enhanced potential for alliance and coalition building. Currently, environmental battles are often fought on a case-by-case basis, with individuals and organizations lining up with a specific cause, rather than pursuing the bigger aim of protecting an ecosystem as a whole, now and into the future. By bringing together people who have previously worked separately to protect not only against the next looming threat, but to establish rights that can be enforced into the future, Rights of Nature could open the door to a whole new world of environmental protection.

DeFoe says that’s the beautiful part — the connections and community that come from doing this work together. “We can each have our own focus,” he says, “with the same goal: Life. Clean water.”

Editor’s note: Emily Levang wrote this story as a participant in the Ensia Mentor Program. The mentor for the project was Hillary Rosner.

2020 Legislative Session begins Tuesday

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By Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

On Tuesday, February 11, the Minnesota Legislature will begin its 2020 regular session, which is scheduled to run no later than May 18. The shorter, even-year session is traditionally a bonding year, in which the Legislature will consider funding capital investment projects across the state.

With the need for urgent action on climate change ever more apparent, and the opportunity to build on last year’s progress on environmental successes, this will be a critical session for Minnesota’s future.

A divided Capitol and new faces

As with last year, the Capitol is divided, with the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party in control of the House of Representatives by a 16-seat margin, and the Republicans holding the Senate by a 3-seat margin, with the DFL Walz Administration in charge of the Executive Branch until at least 2023. And as of last weekend, the DFL Senate caucus has a new leader: Senator Susan Kent of Woodbury was elected the new Minority Leader, succeeding 10-year caucus leader Senator Tom Bakk. Additionally, there are two newcomers who won special elections to the House of Representatives: Republican Paul Novotny of Elk River, and DFLer Sydney Jordan of Minneapolis.

Divided government contributed to an unproductive session last year, especially on energy and climate issues, where little, if any progress was made. However, there were some positive steps: the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative obtained a major boost in funding for its clean agriculture research, the previous year’s raid on the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund was reversed, and a new cost-share program to help homeowners convert lawns to be pollinator-friendly was created. Additionally, numerous harmful bills, ranging from criminalizing pipeline protests to gutting clean water protections, were blocked.

The divided legislature may stymie our efforts for Minnesota’s environment this session, but there’s reason for hope: with all 201 legislators up for reelection in November, they’re likely to feel constituent pressure especially strongly. The rising tide of voices for climate action could shift the balance.

Bonding year and a budget surplus

This year, the legislature will consider how much to invest in infrastructure and other capital improvements via a possible bonding bill, which allows the state to affordably borrow money for projects. As we wrote in January, the Walz Administration has released a strong clean water bonding proposal, which includes money for community water infrastructure, conservation crop acres, and resilience upgrades. MEP will support many of these projects, while strongly advocating for other bonding projects that help confront climate change, such as energy efficiency upgrades and clean transportation infrastructure. We’ll also urge that the Legislature consider how to make all bonding projects more climate-beneficial.

In addition to a likely bonding bill, Minnesota Management and Budget has forecasted a $1.3 billion budget surplus for the state government. Much of that money could be put to great use in boosting Minnesota’s electric vehicle use, renewable energy network, clean agriculture efforts, and climate adaptation.

Climate and energy proposals

As outlined in Walker Orenstein’s MinnPost article linked in this newsletter, the DFL and Republicans in the Legislature have differing ideas for how to approach our state’s changing energy future, and after last year’s completely unproductive session, there seems to be an appetite for action. Senator Dave Senjem, a Republican from Rochester, recently held hearings on a Clean Energy First bill, and DFLers are expected to unveil their own proposals soon. MEP will weigh in on different proposals throughout the session, but we must emphasize: we need action now, and it has to be bold enough to meet our climate needs.

50th Earth Day

On Wednesday, April 22, as the legislative session nears its home stretch, the world will mark the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day. This Earth Day will be an opportunity for many people to commemorate past efforts, take environmentally friendly actions, and reflect on the fact that we haven’t made the progress we’ve needed in the last 50 years. Earth Day will be a spotlight on the climate action we know we need.

MEP and our allies are working on staging and supporting not just one Earth Day event, but many, across the state, with a spotlight on a gathering in the Twin Cities. It will be an opportunity to show decision makers – at the Capitol, in Congress, in private businesses, in cities – that more delays are unacceptable, that the time for business as usual is over. More details on Earth Day will be available soon – keep an eye out for them in the Environmental Insider.

We encourage Minnesotans to keep in contact with their legislators throughout the session. If you need contact information for your legislators, check out the Who Represents Me? tool.

Minnesotans tell PUC: Line 3 would be a disaster

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photo credit: Andy Pearson, MN350

By Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Yesterday, dozens of Minnesotans gathered at the Minnesota Senate Building for a rare event – the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) directly took public comments on the Line 3 oil pipeline proposal. As we wrote last week, the PUC is considering whether to reissue the Line 3 replacement a Certificate of Need and a Route Permit, after both were overturned by the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

This week, MN350 and allied organizations including MEP released “A Giant Step Backward,” a report on the colossal negative climate impact of the new Line 3. A key point includes the calculation that Line 3 and the oil it would transport over its operating life would have the equivalent impact of 50 new coal-fired power plants or 38 million vehicles to our roads. This level of carbon emissions is dangerous and entirely unacceptable if we are serious about combating climate change.

It was with these facts in mind that many people gathered at the Senate Building. Those speaking and listening spilled over into several overflow rooms. As usual, many attendees were bussed in by Enbridge, which for several years has spent more money on lobbying in Minnesota than any other company or organization. But climate and water advocates – youth, health professionals, political leaders, and scientists – attended in much greater numbers, some arriving by 3:30 in the morning or even earlier on a cold January night.

They spoke out about the health impacts of climate change, the threat of a spill to water, people and wildlife, and the urgent need to transition away from fossil fuels. Because the PUC is legally barred from discussing its cases outside of the hearing room, this was one of the few times that they have been openly, formally confronted with the voices of Minnesotans who understand the devastating climate impacts of this pipeline.

The PUC may not change their minds on their previous decision to approve the pipeline. They may ignore the mounting scientific evidence that this pipeline threatens our critical climate action efforts. They may decide that Minnesota can abdicate its responsibility, since Wisconsin, North Dakota, and Canada already have stretches of the pipeline constructed. They may decide that their hands are tied by the existing Line 3 being old and vulnerable to leaks, and that their decision must be made narrowly.

But the Commissioners have a chance to make their choice based on science, on climate justice, and respect for future generations. We urge them not to miss the forest for the trees on Line 3. Minnesotans don’t need this pipeline. Our planet can’t afford Line 3.

To view photos and read quotes from speakers at the hearing, check out these Twitter feeds: twitter.com/LaaliMDtwitter.com/MN_350

In addition, the PUC will hold two more hearings on Line 3 next week on Tuesday and Wednesday. While they will not take public comment, showing up to demonstrate visually against Line 3 is helpful – check out the Facebook event to learn how.

PUC has second chance to make the right call on Line 3

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By Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

This Friday, January 31, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) will hold a public comment hearing on the Enbridge Line 3 oil pipeline replacement. This hearing will inform the PUC’s decision on whether to grant the oil pipeline a Certificate of Need and a Route Permit, both of which are required before the project can begin construction in Minnesota (work has already begun in North Dakota, Wisconsin, and Canada.) The PUC has not had a public hearing on Line 3 since 2014. The proposed pipeline would carry more than 700,000 barrels of oil a day from the Canadian tar sands.

While Enbridge designates the new pipeline as a “replacement” of the existing Line 3, it would have roughly twice the oil capacity and traverse a largely different route through some of Minnesota’s most vulnerable waters.

If this feels like déjà vu, it’s because Enbridge previously won the PUC’s support for the new Line 3 in June 2018. But fortunately, a year later, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that the project’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was inadequate – it didn’t adequately address the considerable danger of a spill into the watershed of Lake Superior. Thanks to the work of environmental advocates, the pipeline was dealt a setback on these grounds, returning to the PUC’s docket.

However, the failure to address the protection of Lake Superior isn’t the only development that the PUC should consider.  Over the past two years, more reports from the International Panel on Climate Change have shown that it is ever more critical to rapidly reduce greenhouse emissions in order to protect humanity from the worst impacts of climate change. This means we can’t afford to continue operating our existing fossil-fuel infrastructure, much less build any new pipelines or fossil fuel plants.

Line 3, which would carry some of the most emissions-heavy oil on earth, would be especially detrimental. The greenhouse gases emitted by the oil transported and the pipeline’s operation would be the equivalent of building 45 coal-fired power plants. The emissions reduced by shutting down all coal plants used to generate Minnesota’s electricity would be dwarfed by comparison. The climate impacts of this pipeline far outweigh any benefits it would provide to Minnesota – which does not need and will not receive any of the oil transported through our state by Line 3.

And the water impacts and risks have still not been addressed by the new Line 3 EIS. MEP and our partners sent a letter to the PUC listing concerns about the EIS glossing over the spill risk, especially to the St. Louis River Estuary near Duluth. We hold that the spill risk fundamental to this pipeline route is another reason that the Certificate of Need must be denied.

In their previous decision, the PUC Commissioners argued that they were only allowed to consider the spill and leak risks of the current, aging Line 3, not the long-term impact of doubling its capacity with a replacement. Similarly, Line 3 proponents contend that the safety of the existing pipeline is the overriding concern: that without a new pipeline through Minnesota, the oil will be transported through the old pipeline, or through other states and provinces, or by rail.

This is a false choice, and making it in this deliberately limited way abdicates Minnesota’s responsibility for climate leadership. If we instead deny this pipeline, we may inspire other governments to act similarly; we may signal that fossil fuel infrastructure is an increasingly hazardous investment; we may delay the export of tar sands oil and have a real impact. We may provide an opening to dismantling the Line 3 pipeline entirely. At the very least, we will protect our most vulnerable waters and the communities they serve from harm.

As the PUC continues its deliberations, we urge concerned Minnesotans to take part, and we thank all those who have already spoken up in this long, difficult process. If you’re able, come to the Minnesota Senate Building in St. Paul on January 31 to speak up for a healthy, livable future.

Is momentum turning against sulfide mining in Minnesota?

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Decision on PolyMet, bill to protect BWCAW are encouraging signs

By Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

On Monday, the Minnesota Court of Appeals dealt a breakthrough victory to tribal and environmental advocates, reversing Department of Natural Resources (DNR) permits for the PolyMet mine. The Court determined that questions about PolyMet’s safety, finances, and ownership merited more examination, and ordered the DNR to hold a contested-case hearing. This hearing, which resembles a multi-month trial, allows for significantly more scrutiny and public input on these issues. The Court also decided that the DNR had to put an end date on any permit granted to PolyMet – the previous allowed indefinite time for site cleanup and maintenance after the mine’s 20-year operation.

This decision isn’t the end of the road on PolyMet, but it lengthens the road considerably, and introduces new potential stopping points that could block the mine entirely. The decision could also make it significantly more difficult for PolyMet to secure financing for its project – previously considered the final step it needed to complete before construction commenced.

Combined with renewed scrutiny of irregularities in the Pollution Control Agency permitting process, it is becoming increasingly difficult to make the case that PolyMet’s permitting process has been objective, thorough and independent. The contested case hearing, which will last months or even longer, will offer more opportunities to raise the many legitimate shortcomings of PolyMet’s mining plans.

It has indeed taken PolyMet a long time to develop their mining plan and work it through the agency review process. But the proposal is clearly still lacking. It’s a bit like the student who spends ten years attending college – this doesn’t entitle them to a degree. And PolyMet still hasn’t produced a credible proposal that protects our air, water, and climate.

This is a major win for Minnesota’s environmental and conservation community, and we thank the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and the MEP member groups who fought this legal battle:  Minnesota Center For Environmental Advocacy, Duluth for Clean Water, Center for Biological Diversity, Save Lake Superior Association, Friends of the Cloquet Valley State Forest, Friends of the Boundary Water Wilderness, and WaterLegacy.

The fight will continue, as PolyMet is moving to appeal the Court of Appeals’ unanimous decision to the Supreme Court. It’s also attempting to block journalists from recording the proceedings next week on whether the Pollution Control Agency improperly hid EPA pollution concerns from the public while granting PolyMet its water permit.

But it’s clear that the tide is beginning to turn against sulfide mining in Minnesota. This week, Representative Betty McCollum introduced a bipartisan bill that would completely ban this type of mining in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness watershed, where the Twin Metals mine has been proposed. This bill wouldn’t affect mines like PolyMet that lie outside the watershed, and faces long odds of passing any time in the near future, but it’s an important recognition of the unique danger that copper-nickel sulfide mining presents to the tremendous freshwater resources that define our state.

Even a few months ago, it seemed as if PolyMet, and Twin Metals and other mines after it, were on an inexorable path to being constructed and forcing Minnesotans to reckon with the cost of cleanup and maintenance for generations. Thanks to committed Minnesotans speaking out, supporting legal efforts, and pressuring our political leaders, a Minnesota free of the threat of sulfide mining seems more possible.

Letter to the PUC regarding second Line 3 Environmental Impact Statement

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Public Advisor
Minnesota Public Utilities Commission
121 7th Place East
St. Paul, MN 55101

January 16, 2020

Regarding: PUC Docket Numbers: PL-9/CN-14-916 and PL-9/PPL-15-137

Thank you for taking comments on the Second Revised Final Environmental Impact Statement regarding the Line 3 Replacement Project. As member organizations of Minnesota Environmental Partnership, the undersigned groups write to share their concerns and comments on the document.

In December 2019 the Minnesota Commerce Department release its Second Revised Final Environmental Impact Statement (Revised FEIS) regarding the Proposed Line 3 Replacement Project. The document is meant to include an analysis of the potential impact of an oil spill into the Lake Superior watershed.

The questions before the Public Utilities Commission are:

  • Is the Revised FEIS adequate?
  • In light of the Revised FEIS, what action should the Commission take on the application for a certificate of need for the Line 3 Replacement Project?
  • In light of the Revised FEIS, what action should the Commission take on the application for a pipeline routing permit for the Line 3 Replacement Project?

Is the Revised FEIS adequate?

Based on our analysis, the answer to the first question is clearly “No.”

At the public comment opportunity in Duluth on December 19, 2019, citizens testified to many important concerns about the overall impact of the proposed new pipeline. They testified as to the impact of the pipeline on carbon emissions and climate change. They testified to the impact of the pipeline construction and labor forces on the pressing issues of public safety and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW). Our groups strongly share the concerns expressed about climate, public safety, MMIW and economic disparities.

Specifically regarding the adequacy of the Revised EIS as released, our groups have the following concerns:

The spill models shows dramatic impact on the Lake Superior watershed but that result is buried in the Addendum.

Despite the public relations spin presented by many of the people at the December 19 public comment opportunity, the spill models do clearly show impact on the St. Louis River, which is the largest US tributary to Lake Superior. That impact will be strongest on Jay Cooke State Park and also on the ecologically valuable St. Louis River estuary.

We believe the final Addendum should provide a short executive summary near the beginning of the document stating clearly that a spill scenario would definitely impact the Lake Superior watershed, especially Jay Cooke State Park and the St. Louis River estuary. Without that summary, it is nearly impossible to find that information as it is buried about two-thirds of the way through a highly technical document. 

A spill in the Pokegama River should have been modeled

The scope of the work was unnecessarily narrow, especially given the December 23, 2019 ruling of the Minnesota Court of Appeals regarding the Nemadji Trail Energy Center. 
As we learned, the Revised FEIS presumes an oil spill IN Minnesota was appropriate for responding to the Appeals Court.  Enbridge and the Minnesota Department of Commerce chose a point well upstream from the main lake and concluded the threat to Lake Superior would be small. However, if the spill site had been at a point along the Line 3 route through Wisconsin the distance to the Lake would be significantly shorter and impacts therefore greater. Wisconsin spill sites that are far closer to Lake Superior include the Nemadji crossings and the Pokegama Creek crossings near the Village of Superior.

The Appeals Court, in the Nemadji Trail Energy Center case, decided that the Minnesota Environmental Policy Act applies if the point of impact is a resource of Minnesota interest even though the source of the impact was outside the borders of the state.

The Fond du Lac Dam is not permanent

The model in the Revised FEIS relies heavily on the ongoing presence of the Fond du Lac Dam. However, there is no assurance that this dam will continue to be in place.

Repeatedly in the Revised FEIS the Fond du Lac Dam is shown to be a stoppage or slow-down point for water and oil. For example, on page 4.60, the Revised FEIS states,

 “Under average river flow conditions, the CLB [Cold Lake Blend] was predicted to not move beyond the waters above the Fond du Lac Dam after 24 hours.”

Also on page 4.60, the Revised FEIS states,

“For the high river flow scenario, CLB was predicted to go over the Fond du Lac Dam (0.65-1 day into the release), becoming re-entrained within the water column, and transported downstream to river mile 20.”

It is clear that the model relies on the Fond du Lac dam either to stop and retain an oil spill or to slow it down.

Across the United States, dams are being removed. As American Rivers, a national river advocacy group puts it, “Dam removal brings a variety of benefits to local communities, including restoring river health and clean water, revitalizing fish and wildlife, improving public safety and recreation, and enhancing local economies.” Nationwide, 1,605 dams have been removed from 1912 through 2018. This includes 99 dams removed in 2018 alone. 2018 removals included two Minnesota dams, the Pelican Lake and the Marsh Lake Dam.

Local restoration ecologists have estimated that the reservoir behind the Fond du Lac dam has buried at least eight miles of potential prime spawning habitat. This would be rare spawning habitat with direct hydrologic connections to the St. Louis River estuary and to Lake Superior. Already, lake sturgeon are spawning in restored habitat right at the base of the dam.
For the model in the Revised FEIS to be valid, the Fond du Lac Dam would have to be in place for the life of the Line 3 pipeline.

Climate change impacts are ignored

The Revised FEIS relies on the geospatial hydrological framework NHDPlus. This is a current-time framework and does not account for predicted changes in precipitation. Current trends show an ongoing increase in precipitation and in frequency of flood events in this region. The Revised FEIS does not account for these changes.

Impacts on wild rice are ignored

While the Revised FEIS does identify wild rice as one of four “watercourse features” in the St. Louis River and St. Louis Estuary that could be affected by the oil spill, no effort seems to have been made to correlate potential spill areas with actual and potential wild rice beds. A full review of environmental impact should clearly state the number of actual and potential acres of wild rice that would be impacted.

Report ignores unique factors of the SLR Estuary

Restoration and remediation work in the St. Louis River Area of Concern.

While the FEIS and Revised FEIS use the term “Sensitive Ecosystem” broadly to identify and categorize areas that will be impacted by an oil spill, that term is not specific enough to cover substantial parts of the St. Louis River estuary. Remediation of contaminated sediment, restoration of habitat, and revitalization of human uses are occurring throughout the estuary in the last ten years under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and the Area of Concern project. We believe that the Revised FEIS should specifically identify areas in the path of pollution that have been remediated or restored, so decision makers have a clear sense of the impact of an oil spill on these investments. Some specific project sites that are threatened under the current scenario include Chambers Grove, Fond du Lac Dam sturgeon habitat, tribal wild rice restoration in Rask Bay, and Radio Tower Bay.

Mixing in the estuary

The Revised FEIS, while it mentions the St. Louis River Estuary by name, does not adequately explain or account for the dramatic mixing that occurs in the estuary. Unlike any of the other seven sites, the St. Louis River Estuary has pulses of widely differing water types, ranging from fresh cold Lake Superior water to nutrient-laden run-off. Water levels can rise two feet in a matter of hours and flood nearshore forests.

In light of the Revised FEIS, what action should the Commission take on the application for a certificate of need for the Line 3 Replacement Project?

Briefly, we believe the Revised FEIS is not adequate to sufficiently address the certificate of need at this time. So the certificate of need should be denied.

In light of the Revised FEIS, what action should the Commission take on the application for a pipeline routing permit for the Line 3 Replacement Project?

The Revised FEIS does not address our groups’ long-held concerns that the proposed route of Line 3 is fundamentally risky and should not be approved. In fact, with the additional information on dramatic impacts possible in the Lake Superior watershed, our opposition to the pipeline routing permit is stronger than before.

Thank you for your consideration of our concerns about the Second Revised Final EIS.

Sincerely,

Steve Morse
Executive Director

Center for Biological Diversity

Clean Up the River Environment (CURE)

Honor the Earth

Izaak Walton League Minnesota Division

League of Women Voters Minnesota

Mankato Area Environmentalists

Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light

Minnesota Native Plant Society

MN350

Pesticide Action Network North America

Renewing the Countryside

Save Lake Superior Association

Save Our Sky Blue Waters

Sierra Club North Star Chapter

Walz Administration releases major clean water bonding proposal

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By Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

On Friday, Governor Tim Walz announced a proposal to leverage $300 million in state bonding dollars to upgrade and replace water infrastructure across Minnesota. This program, which would require passage by the Legislature in the coming session, would focus on helping Minnesota communities deal with the mounting costs of maintaining drinking water, stormwater, and wastewater systems that keep their residents healthy and safe.

“Every Minnesotan deserves access to clean water, yet that isn’t the case in many communities across the state, especially out in Greater Minnesota,” said Walz. The Governor framed the investments not only as a clean water initiative, but also as a jobs program and an important tool for climate resilience.

The Walz Administration is right in identifying and responding to this problem – infrastructure failures are a major source of drinking water pollution. Governor Walz and MPCA Commissioner Laura Bishop rightly stressed that climate change is already having harmful impacts on both water quality and community safety. And general bonding is a financially responsible way to address many of these infrastructure needs.

The bonding proposal includes major funding for loans and grants for communities to build new water treatment and drainage systems, which can difficult for rural towns to afford on their own, to prevent harmful contamination of drinking water supplies. It offers $15 million for upgrades to make stormwater systems more resilient in the face of extreme weather events worsened by climate change – a critical need for many of Minnesota’s river communities that have suffered from severe flooding. In the proposal summary, the Walz Administration lists more than 60 possible projects in 31 Minnesota communities that could benefit from these water investments.

It includes $16.5 million for the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), which helps to set aside lands for natural landscapes that help clean up water and provide habitat for wildlife. This program is a key tool for reducing and filtering fertilizer runoff, a contributor to groundwater contamination that threatens many communities and well owners.

We’re excited to see the Walz Administration unveil this proposal, and MEP will advocate for strong bonding investments in clean water infrastructure and climate resilience this session. We’ll also ask Legislature to confront the other roots of what plagues many Minnesota’s access to drinking water across the state: agricultural and industrial pollution. 

When it comes to clean water, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure (if not more!) We’re heartened to see the Walz Administration pushing for proactive measures to address water contamination and climate change impacts. We hope to see it coupled with a strong push to center our precious water resources and the people who rely on them in decisions on clean agriculture, mining, climate action, and land use. 100% clean water is achievable in Minnesota – if we’re committed to working for it.