Regulatory failures emerge across the state

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Minnesotans in both the Driftless region and the heart of south Minneapolis have received rude awakenings this month, with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stepping in to warn that the resources they rely on to live are more polluted than many had thought.

In the rolling farmland of the southeastern Driftless region, the EPA responded to a petition – led by MEP member Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy along with several environmental groups – asking for action on nitrate contamination in the region’s water supply. In a letter to state agencies, the EPA agreed that the state is failing in its legal and moral responsibilities and further action is sorely needed. Nitrate is a human health risk, especially for infants, and has been linked to several types of cancer. And the Driftless region, with its pollutant-vulnerable karst geology, is full of it.

In the East Phillips neighborhood of south Minneapolis, meanwhile, after a surprise on-site inspection, the EPA revealed that Smith Foundry has been polluting the area with lead and other harmful airborne substances far in excess of the law for at least five years. During that time, the iron foundry failed to operate necessary safety equipment, resulting in toxic emissions that will cause lasting harm to the health of area residents.

For some residents, these revelations aren’t a surprise. Many well owners in southeast Minnesota have become increasingly aware of nitrate in their water, as well as the culprits: primarilyy row crop agriculture and livestock feedlots. Many Minneapolis residents have noticed the smoke, soot, and smells emitting from Smith Foundry and asked city and state leaders to act to protect them.

Neither of these problems come as a shock, but the fact that they’ve gone unadresseed by state agencies like the Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and the Department of Agriculture (MDA) is a deep source of frustration. It’s evidence that, despite the professionalism and abilities of agency staff, industries hold excessive influence over the agencies. Thanks to that influence, they’ve been able to avoid accountability.

A rebuke to state agencies

The EPA’s letter to state agencies declared in no uncertain terms that Minnesota’s efforts to manage nitrate have fallen far short. It requested that the state develop a comprehensive plan to identify all impacted households in the region and provide them with an alternative source of drinking water. Equally as important is the EPA urging state agencies to address the long-term sources of this pollution, especially manure.

The “request” carries significant weight: if the state fails to act swiftly and effectively, the EPA can then step in and use its emergency powers to take action directly as originally requested by the organizations that petitioned it.

In Minneapolis, the EPA is dealing directly with a single polluter. Thanks to their inspections earlier this year, the EPA identified the violations and in August began pursuing an enforcement action, which could lead to fines or other penalties for the foundry.

Smith Foundry is one of many industrial facilities with a permit from the MPCA, requiring it to adhere to pollution standards. But that was cold comfort to the residents of East Phillips, a community where most residents are people of color and where health outcomes are already among the worst in the state, outcomes that are associated with industrial pollution.

The surprise inspection by the EPA was a critical moment for protecting the community, and a rare one, arguably too rare.

Generally, polluting industries are given wide latitude to self-report their pollution emissions and prevention measures. Agencies – over which these industries wield significant influence – tend to treat them as customers, not potential threats to public health.

MEP appreciates the work of our state agencies like the MPCA to track pollution and keep the public informed. But after years of legislative efforts to limit funding and effectiveness of the agency regulatory programs, their financial capacity and enthusiasm for adequate regulation is reduced. They clearly don’t use all their regulatory authority to keep polluters in line, or worse, collude with them to bring dubious permits to approval.

That kind of collusion led to a rebuke for the MPCA at the Minnesota Supreme Court earlier this year over the PolyMet mining project. The Court ruled that the MPCA had been “arbitrary and capricious” in its approval of the mine’s water pollution permit due to the agency attempting to hide EPA concerns from the public record.

Minnesotans should be able to expect that state agencies will step up to halt or mitigate dangerous pollution when it arises. Agencies need not be  antagonistic towards industries, but they should fall on the side of putting our health and families first when in doubt. Right now, we can’t count on that.

Things need to change. The answer may be clearer and tougher oversight (like the bill reestablishing the MPCA Citizens’ Board) by the public, or by legislative committees. It may be tougher laws – like the new Cumulative Impacts law passed earlier this year – additional agency resources, or executive orders. We know for certain the status quo isn’t working.

The role of community action

The bright spot in these stories is that communities and organizations are stepping up to identify and fight pollution. We especially the thank MEP member organizations that joined with Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy to petition the EPA on the nitrate issue, including: CURE, Environmental Working Group, Friends of the Mississippi River, Izaak Walton League Minnesota Division, Land Stewardship Project, Minnesota Trout Unlimited, and Minnesota Well Owners Organization.

We hope the day will soon come when state agencies are far more proactive and protective about pollution threats to Minnesotans’ health and natural environment. When we won’t have to rely on the Federal Environmental Protection Agency to step in and do the work that should be done by our own state agencies. In the meantime, it’s clear that Minnesota’s grassroots environmental groups have a big role to play in getting us there.

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