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Losing wetlands: The sinking of Minnesota’s protections

The governor cannot have it both ways. Either he defends the right to clean water and air, or he continues to dismantle legislation designed to protect those rights.

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While the governor appears to be in favor of protecting our wetlands, he has allowed BWSR and its stakeholders to help author policy changes to be set before the state Legislature that are the direct opposite of his Executive Directive.

This commentary contains a correction.

CHISHOLM, Minn. — Wetlands are valued for maintaining and improving water quality, providing wildlife habitat, reducing run-off while retaining floodwaters, reducing stream sedimentation, conserving surface waters and subsurface moisture, helping moderate climate change, and enhancing the natural beauty of the landscape. Most of Minnesota has given up its pre-settlement wetlands in exchange for urban development and agriculture. According to existing records, the northeast corner of Minnesota has retained 80 percent or more of its pre-settlement wetlands, although many wetlands were destroyed by logging and mining before being documented.

Minnesota Statutes, section 103A.201, subdivision 2(b) states that it is in the public interest to achieve no net loss in the quantity, quality and biological diversity of Minnesota’s wetlands. In a political move to appease conservationists after he signed legislation streamlining environmental permitting, Gov. Mark Dayton issued Executive Order 12-04.

In it, he ordered the Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR), in cooperation with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Lands and Minerals Division, Department of Transportation, Pollution Control Agency, Department of Agriculture, and invited stakeholders, to develop recommendations to improve current wetland protection, restoration and mitigation.

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BWSR is chaired by Brian Napstad, Aitkin County commissioner. Napstad is also a member of the Northern Counties Land Use Coordinating Board (NCLUCB), consisting of commissioner representatives from eight counties:  Aitkin, Cook, Koochiching, Lake, Lake-of-the-Woods, Pennington, Roseau, and St. Louis. NCLUCB views wetlands as an impediment to development.

More loss coming

Continued expansion of the operating taconite mines in St. Louis County results in the continued loss of wetlands. Early on, mining operations were not required to compensate for wetland loss. Taconite mining’s open pits, waste rock piles and tailings basins sit on large tracts of what once were wetlands, streams and even small lakes. Some of this loss has been “mitigated” by preserving wetlands or restoring ditched wetlands in Aitkin, Koochiching, and Lake of the Woods counties. These counties lose their tax base when land is taken out of farming or otherwise preserved.

More wetland replacement will be needed for the start-up of the Essar Steel nugget plant projected for this fall, and for Mesabi Nugget’s proposed open-pit mine. The loss of wetlands for the proposed PolyMet mine (1,400 affected acres) would be the largest single loss in the history of the Army Corps of Engineers, and expansion of United Taconite ‘s tailings basin would destroy another 1,100 acres.

Because mining is eating up so much of the wetlands in the Lake Superior watershed, legislation was passed in 2012 that allows such wetland mitigation to take place in the Rainy River watershed at a 1:1 ratio. Previously, mitigating outside of the affected watershed required a 1: 1.5 replacement ratio. The change made it easier and less expensive for mining companies to compensate for the destruction of wetlands.

If implemented, new recommendations will further erode the no-net-loss of wetlands policy that Dayton says he wants to preserve. Minnesota House File 1637 includes the following changes: 1) under a permit to mine, the Great Lakes, Rainy River, and the Red River of the North shall be considered as a single watershed and 2) an in-lieu fee wetland replacement program would allow for a monetary payment in place of a wetland banking program; this program would be administered by BWSR.

Impacts of in-lieu fee arrangement

An in-lieu fee would give mining companies credit in advance, clear them of responsibility for wetland replacement, and remove any incentive to avoid wetland destruction. Mining companies will be able to continue destroying high quality functioning wetlands in Minnesota’s Arrowhead if BWSR makes in-lieu arrangements to mitigate wetlands in the Red River watershed. This policy will result in a net loss of functioning wetlands and a repetition of the cycle by which wetlands are destroyed and then attempted to be reconstructed.

H.F. 1637 also marginalizes citizen input by relying on stakeholder policymaking. Stakeholders include mining and/or logging industry representatives. A token environmental group may be included. Even so, some environmental groups favor wetland replacement mitigation that creates habitat for ducks and migrating birds, while neglecting to consider the scope of wetland loss in the ecologically fragile environment of Superior National Forest within the Lake Superior watershed, and the Boundary Waters. For example, high-quality wetlands are critical for survival of the declining moose population in the area. During the summer months, moose feed on aquatic vegetation and depend on the cooling effects of water. Wetlands impound and retain water, buffering the impacts of drought and climate change.

While the governor appears to be in favor of protecting our wetlands, he has allowed BWSR and its stakeholders to help author policy changes to be set before the state Legislature that are the direct opposite of his Executive Directive. With both House and Senate under DFL control, northeast Minnesota legislators who favor mining expansion hold chairmanship position of key committees. HF 1637 is currently sitting in the Environment and Natural Resources Policy Committee under the chairmanship of Rep. David Dill.

HF 1785, St. Louis County state land exchange, has also been referred to Rep. Dill’s committee. Its companion bill, SF 1605, is in the Environment and Energy Committee, chaired by Sen. John Marty. This bill provides a wetland mitigation exchange for projects, including PolyMet’s proposed copper sulfide open pit. The proposed mine site would affect 1,400 acres of Superior National Forest wetlands, the largest single loss in the history of the Army Corps of Engineers. This exchange is a remake of the original PolyMet Wetlands Mitigation Plan, which was opposed by local residents who objected to functional wetlands being used for restorative mitigation by filling in remaining ditches, destroying existing habitat, and impacting adjoining farm land. The plan was ultimately denied in court. This history isn’t preventing legislators from slipping what looks like an innocuous land exchange through the Legislature.

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Policy changes under the radar

Northeast legislators have already added language to HF 976 that expands the definition of scram mining in statute. According to this new language, more than 80 acres of land not previously affected by mining can also be mined if the operator can demonstrate that impacts would be substantially the same as other scram operations. This pertains to land not previously impacted by mining, and would now include the mining of taconite ores. Passage of this bill would statutorily eliminate environmental review for previously unmined areas. This acreage could include wetlands. Wetland policy thus gets modified under the radar, allowing the landscape of northeast Minnesota to change dramatically, altering flora, fauna and the integrity of watersheds. Meanwhile, Dayton is held free of accountability.

At a Minnesota Chamber of Commerce meeting on March 13, the governor, in responding to a question regarding the length of time it is taking the proposed PolyMet mine to get permitted, stated that he would like to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency (MPR, March 21, 2013, “Dayton defends his criticism of EPA at Duluth town hall”). At an April 9 panel discussion sponsored by the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Center for Ethics and Public Policy, DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said that Dayton was concerned about the pace with which the EPA is proceeding on mining permits. Landwehr and MPCA Commissioner John Stine met recently with EPA Regional Administrator Susan Hedman about how state and federal permitting can be more efficient.

Defend or dismantle

Dayton’s tactics are leading to an erosion of regulations that were put in place to protect our environment. The governor cannot have it both ways. Either he defends the rights of workers and the public to clean water and air in a quality environment, or he continues to dismantle legislation designed to protect those rights. His choice will determine his legacy.

To express concerns about the wetlands and quality of Minnesota’s environment, contact the governor at 1-800-657-3717.

Elanne Palcich, a retired elementary school teacher, lives in Chisholm, Minn.

Correction: An earlier version of this commentary said that DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr answered a question at a panel discussion in part by saying that Gov. Mark Dayton had met with EPA Regional Administrator Susan Hedman to advocate for PolyMet. It was Landwehr and MPCA Commissioner John Stine who met with Hedman, and the subject was permitting in general, not permitting of PolyMet. The governor was not present at the meeting.

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