MN Supreme Court and Clean Water

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Word on the street is that At 1 p.m. today the Minnesota Supreme Court will published their long-awaited opinion on a case driving efforts to clean up our lakes and rivers in Minnesota.  Here’s some background:

The federal Clean Water Act stipulates that states have to classify their waters (safe for swimming, fishing, or other) and ensure they meet the standards needed for that classification (i.e. see if they are clean enough).  When a lake or segment of a river is found to be polluted (wonks use the term “impaired”) a few things are supposed to happen:

  1. A process is required to identify where the pollution is coming from and how much the pollution needs to be reduced to restore the water.  This is known as a TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load), which is used to describe both the plan and the amount of pollution allowed.
  2. While the cleanup plan is being developed, the Clean Water Act says that no new source of this pollution should be allowed to make the problem worse. 
  3. An implementation plan is created to reduce the pollution to the identified level.  Truth be told, I think law is weak on actually making sure cleanup happens, but this is at least how it is supposed to work I think.

The court case coming out later today is based on point number 2 and involves the cities of Annandale and Maple Lake and Lake Pepin.  You might notice that Annandale and Maple Lake, who want to build a wastewater treatment plant together that discharges into the Mississippi north of the Twin Cities, is no where near Lake Pepin, which lies south of Red Wing.  Something like 60 percent of the state of Minnesota lies in the watershed for Lake Pepin.  Thus, when Lake Pepin was found to have too high a level of phosphorus in it, federal law should dictate that no new source of phosphorus pollution (such as a wastewater facility) should be permitted in any part of the state from which water might flow to the lake.

Or at least that is my understanding of the argument used by Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA) when they filed a suit to stop the Pollution Control Agency from permitting the new wastewater treatment facility at Annandale-Maple Lake.  The PCA was claiming that it was okay for the new facility to be built because farther upstream some other city had recently reduced its pollution level.  Of course, if that was how we were to operate as a state, we’d never reduce pollution levels because we’d take a step back for every step forward.  The Supreme Court decision should decide whether or not the PCA can use this approach (MCEA won the last court decision, which the PCA appeal to the Supreme Court).

This court case is also at the heart of the Clean Water Legacy efforts.  Over forty percent of lakes and river segments tested in Minnesota are found to be polluted with phosphorus, human and animal waste, or other pollutants.  If cities and businesses are prevented from expanding while TMDLs are waiting to be created, it’s going to affect our economy.  Not to mention, our lakes should be clean enough for kids and adults to swim in without getting sick (here’s an old radio ad telling a kayaker’s story), and our fish should be safe to eat when we catch them. 

And so environmental and conservation groups joined with business and agricultural groups and local and state government representatives to create Clean Water Legacy.  They’ve identified the need for $100 million a year in state funding, which would leverage federal funding and work with local investments, to clean up our lakes and rivers.  Sadly, the legislature only funded one-quarter of the need this year, but hope for a long-term dedicated source is still in motion.  

I’ll let you know when I know how the Supreme Court rules, but do  The Supreme Court has reversed the previous decision and ruled in favor of the PCA.  That’s sad.  Keep an eye out for a press release from MCEA

(update 5/18) – It’s bad enough that the Supreme Court has given the go ahead to pollute already polluted water with no clean up plan in sight, now the PCA is calling that ruling good for the environment.  That’s just appalling. 

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