Legislature’s environmental vandalism could undo Dayton legacy on buffers

Minnesota’s adoption of a truly meaningful buffer program in place of ineffective rules, antique in origin and rarely enforced, will probably count among the most important environmental achievements of recent years.

A swarm of Minnesotans is to assemble at the governor’s residence this morning to insist he veto an omnibus budget bill which, in the guise of making funding allotments, is in fact aimed at undermining environmental protection in Minnesota.

Some of its provisions – like abolition of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s  citizen board, which gives ultimate authority to people with maximum independence from outside pressure – would erase time-tested hallmarks of progressive stewardship.

Others, such as the cute rewriting of new pollinator protections to let insect-killing plants be sold as “pollinator friendly,” so long as the first contact with a systemic insecticide isn’t fatal, would undercut modest, sensible, important steps forward on a problem where action is long overdue.

Then there is the amazing categorical exemption of copper-nickel mining from state regulations on solid waste — a blank check for industrial pollution sources that don’t yet exist, for discharges that can’t yet be quantified, with impacts extending for centuries.

And in so many cases – like the three examples above – the basic badness is compounded by an added dimension of last-minute lawmaking in secret. Talk about your “garbage bills.”

Even if their anti-environment objectives weren’t so sufficiently objectionable, it’s indefensible for the proponents of these measures to cloak their initiatives from public view – and from reasonable review by legislative opponents – with the self-serving excuse of deadline pressure.

Let’s try this thought experiment: If the Legislature’s environmentally minded membership had managed to sneak into law, say, a mandate for a comprehensive review of all potential sulfide mining impacts in the north woods, without a committee hearing or a moment of floor debate, would that be considered fair play?

Blaming ‘divided government’

In comments reported by Minnesota Public Radio’s Elizabeth Dunbar on Wednesday, Mark Dayton seemed to signal an unwillingness to veto the agriculture/energy budget bill:

There are things that are really important, such as the buffer language, and there are things that I strongly disagree with, for example eliminating the Pollution Control Agency Citizens Board, which has been in existence for about 40 years through Republican and Democrat and Independent governors.

But I’ve said to these groups, it’s not like we can go back, if I veto a bill or something, it’s not like we can go back and get a better bill.

Given the split nature of governance, which the voters of Minnesota decided we should have, from their standpoint, and I’m sure from the other side’s standpoint as well, there are things in there that they really, really strongly dislike and want to change. …

[But] that’s something we’re going to have to live with for another year and a half and through another legislative session. People want divided government, this is one of the consequences of it.

But with all due respect, I have to ask: Wouldn’t this reasoning apply equally well to the education bill the governor has already vetoed?

Proud accomplishment on buffers

We live in a time of such profound political gridlock in most areas of potential environmental progress that truly bold initiatives rarely gain much ground.

One fair-sized exception already marks the record of Mark Dayton’s second term:

His personal and insistent leadership that Minnesota create meaningful natural barriers to agricultural runoff along the shorelines and stream banks of its public waters.

The Legislature hasn’t given him everything he wanted on buffers, and there’s an argument to be made that he should use his veto power to insist on fewer exceptions and a faster timetable.

Either way, Minnesota’s adoption of a truly meaningful  buffer program in place of ineffective rules, antique in origin and rarely enforced, will probably count among the most important environmental achievements of recent years.

Also, as a centerpiece of his legacy as governor, not least because he put the principle so plainly: Farmers may own the land, but the water belongs to the people.

An opposite sort of environmental legacy awaits the governor if he accepts, as the price of that progress, the stealth attacks in the agriculture/environment budget and other last-minute measures.

Other examples in addition to the howlers listed above:

  • A 24 percent cut in general fund revenue allotted to environmental programs; among the targets are cleanups of landfills that have become a state obligation and are discharging pollution to lakes, streams and groundwater resources that, we must recall,  belong to the people.
  • Undoing a negotiated stakeholder agreement on a way forward for an advanced biofuels industry that would rely on perennial crops, not corn, as the feedstock for ethanol production, while providing additional runoff-reducing protections for public waterways.
  • Multiple new curbs on MPCA enforcement authority and procedure, including this notable gift to potential copper-nickel mines in the north woods: suspension of the agency’s ability to protect wild rice from sulfate pollution under current rules, while revised standards are in development.
  • A grab-bag of provisions excusing polluters from established rules on inspections, permits and performance review – including, incredibly, a grant of amnesty that suspends enforcement action and waives penalties for lawbreakers who self-report their transgressions.

Emulating Wisconsin

I am not a full-time legislative correspondent, and I don’t claim to be expert on all of this legislation. I don’t even claim it’s a complete list of the sabotage; other troubling measures on renewable energy, for example, floated up in the session’s waning days.

But no special expertise is needed to appreciate the scope of these assaults on resources and stewardship programs which, poll after poll consistently shows, are valued highly not only by “environmentalists” but by most everyone.

And that, no doubt, explains why so much of this dirty business was done on the quiet. Look at all the heat Wisconsin’s governor, Scott Walker, has taken for his recent efforts to dismantle citizen boards and hobble regulators assigned to protect the people’s resources.

Mark Dayton can say it was Republican lawmakers and their northern DFL collaborators, not his office, who borrowed a page from Walker’s playbook to pound on the MPCA and shield sulfide mining.

But if he acquiesces to their “gamesmanship,” as Steve Morse of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership has so appropriately termed it, he will be equally and memorably culpable.

I suppose it’s possible, though not very likely, that if the governor were to cast a veto or two in the direction of all this environmental mischief, no better bill could emerge from the special session.

Even so, there would be progress of a kind in opening the mess to a full review in the sunshine.

So I hope that Mark Dayton, for his own sake and ours, listens hard to the crowd outside his house this morning and then asks himself:

Do I want to be remembered as the guy who

  • Vetoed an education spending bill over disputes that few will be able to recall, and fewer explain, a couple of years from now, while
  • Surrendering to a campaign of vandalism against Minnesota’s environmental protections so ugly and venal that people will be talking about it long after my compromise achievement on waterway buffers has begun to fade?

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Robert Gauthier on 05/21/2015 - 10:47 am.

    Amen

    The damage in this bill makes other bills look tame

  2. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 05/21/2015 - 01:27 pm.

    Playing politics

    The Minnesota Constitution authorizes the Governor to “line item” veto provisions in bills. His explanation about not getting a “better bill” and living with divided government abdicates his own authority and part of the process to give it balance. Is he thinking that allowing bad laws to go into effect will create some sort of political backlash that will correct this over time? That’s the only explanation I can think of.

    He can talk until the cows come home about leaving a legacy like kindergarten for 4 year olds. If he’s unwilling to exercise his power to prevent the worst sort of legislation go into effect as law, his actions belie his high minded talk as mere rhetoric.

  3. Submitted by Jim Jeffries on 05/21/2015 - 01:48 pm.

    Pollution Control

    If today’s editorial about the legislature’s run around citizen attempts to control and minimize ground pollution in our great state is at all accurate and becomes law, I will eagerly move my business interests elsewhere, to a state where the environment has a higher priority.

  4. Submitted by Rod Loper on 05/21/2015 - 04:59 pm.

    Mark will cave?

    Letting them gut the laws that defend the environment is no legacy.

  5. Submitted by Tom Karas on 05/21/2015 - 07:14 pm.

    The best sentence–

    But if he acquiesces to their “gamesmanship,” as Steve Morse of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership has so appropriately termed it, he will be equally and memorably culpable.

    If this is allowed to move beyond the fantasy stage of the MN GOP, Dayton needs to be chained to the results just as any of the Republican players. This will become the legacy for his future if he cannot realize that we are but 9 months away from getting it right in the next session. Allowing this to pass is pure nonsense and an affront to the leadership of this state..

  6. Submitted by Elanne Palcich on 05/21/2015 - 11:20 pm.

    Legacy

    i think that Gov. Dayton has his own version of what he wants his legacy to be. He just wants to be remembered as a nice guy, one who likes kindergarteners and his Republican adversaries.

  7. Submitted by Joe Musich on 05/21/2015 - 11:21 pm.

    In broad terms …

    Dayton has not been green friendly to the “wall!” And looks like that will be the case here.

  8. Submitted by C.A. Arneson on 05/22/2015 - 01:10 am.

    Wake up Minnesota, your babies are crying

    In the Lake Superior Basin of Minnesota, 10% of newborns tested had unsafe levels of mercury in their blood, levels that cause brain damage and loss of IQ points. Sulfates are the culprit, without sulfates the mercury would not be transformed to methyl mercury. Yet Governor Dayton just made a deal to allow the mining industry to continue to spew sulfates into our waters unchecked, this from a governor who would veto a bill because it lacked funding for early childhood education. The sad irony is that early childhood education cannot replace a child’s lost intelligence. We are poisoning our children.

    The State of Minnesota apparently has immunity from prosecution; otherwise those responsible for H.F. 846 should be prosecuted for a form of child abuse. Who is more responsible for Minnesota’s children than the Minnesota Legislature, those making the decisions that affect our children’s health? What would happen to a parent, or custodian of a child, who by their actions deliberately caused that child to be brain damaged? H.F. 846 is intentional and premeditated abuse of Minnesota’s children for corporate profit, by a Legislature that is supposed to protect them. A Legislature that intends to make sure no one else can protect them either by gutting the MPCA and abolishing its Citizens’ Board.

    The solid waste provision, secretly slid into H.F. 846 without discussion, is nothing more than a ploy to exempt sulfide mining from immense amounts of toxic concentrate that would remain after reverse osmosis, hazardous waste. How many more of our children would the toxic metals and chemicals damage? H.F. 846 is criminal, and those responsible for it deserve to be treated accordingly.

    • Submitted by Bill Willy on 05/22/2015 - 02:04 pm.

      Those responsible should be prosecuted

      Yes they should…

      Short of that, the whole stinking thing ought to be:

      A) vetoed; and

      B) investigated by SOMEone (Legislative Auditor, Attorney General, Perry Mason?), starting with in-depth testimony from the people that signed the HF 846 conference committee report:

      House conferees: McNamara, Hamilton, Hackbarth, Fabian, and Dill.

      Senate conferees: Tomassoni; Sparks; Hoffman; Marty; Weber

      Garofalo, Bakk, Saxhaug and Daubt should be added to that list, of course, along with a few more. Those people know the things about the bill and the “process” all Minnesotans should know but don’t because of the things only they know.

      If you’re interested in watching D. Tomassoni’s mumbled and murky presentation of the the HF 1437 delete-all amendment (that included HF 846 “and more!”) and the 11 pm Senate debate on the 90-page bill no one had seen before – – the one that got hustled over to the House and voted on at the ugly end – – go here and click on the format you’d prefer (Flash or Windows Media):

      http://www.senate.leg.state.mn.us/media/media_list.php?ls=89&ver=new&archive_year=2015&category=floor&type=video#header

      This link leads directly to the Flash version:

      http://www.senate.leg.state.mn.us/media/media_video_popup.php?flv=sfloor_051815d.flv

      To send the Governor a note to encourage a veto (he has until Midnight, Saturday):

      http://mn.gov/governor/contact-us/form/

      P.S. Thanks, C.A., for all the work you’ve done (for years) to help make Minnesotans aware of the very real threat that is closing in on us all.

      If you have an extra 30 seconds, this link will take you to a tiny example of that work that’s in video form. It’s a 28 second clip that will give you a pretty good idea what will happen, and what a whole lot of the most beautiful country in the world will look like shortly after copper nickel mining begins, IF it is allowed to begin:

      “Group tours area blasted by Herb Akins in early 1970’s. 10,000 tons of Copper-Nickel rock were shipped to INCO in Canada. This hill is what is left and has been exposed to the elements since Feb. 13, 1974, the final day of blasting. Nothing has grown there since except what you see in the video.”

      https://vimeo.com/21218549

      Take a look at what your kids and their kids will have to look forward to on THEIR trips “up north” if today’s Minnesotans let it happen.

  9. Submitted by Joe Smithers on 05/26/2015 - 08:47 am.

    Vandalism Ron? Really?

    You mistake bipartisan support for vandalism. You know nothing of the current rules or proposed rules at all and stop at nothing to shout from the mountain top how terrible it is. Get over yourself. The bill would be a good thing that gives support to the DNR and SWCD to enforce the buffer rules. There is no proof that a larger buffer than the proposed one is necessary at all. If we end up with a government shut down it is clear it will be Daytons fault completely as it is obvious we have legislators who are willing to work with each other and each side made concessions but Daytons stubbornness is causing him to veto everything. We need a Governor with a common sense approach to things rather than the current one who sticks his head in the sand, won’t listen to anyone with knowledge, and won’t budge.

  10. Submitted by Don Evanson on 05/27/2015 - 01:59 am.

    Why castigate the Republicans?

    A nice piece of advocacy journalism here, Ron Meador.

    Wasn’t it you that did the article on the Badger ferry of Lake Michigan? If so, why don’t you stick to that sort of good work?

    Undoubtedly, the Dem’s of the conference committee supported the language of the final bill due to the influence of the DFL-controlled IRRB. Why didn’t you suggest that, for fair journalistic balance since you are full of suggestions that serve to disparage the Repub’s?

  11. Submitted by Bill Willy on 05/28/2015 - 12:23 am.

    Please pass the Kool Aid

    In other words, “What!?”

    Because of what all of those of you that think some kind of travesty has happened, here’s what we’ll do: We’ll just let all these fantastic Republican proposed, and Range DFL legislator-supported, Laws slide into Law and then we’ll have all the “tailings” from the Polymet and Twin Metals Grand Plan dropped off in your back yard (on a state-of-the-art liner, of course) and let YOU make sure the rain and snow and spring and fall weather in general doesn’t make anything leak (into your basement, or your kids or grandkids basements) for the next 500 or more years or so.

    Another excellent article, Ron.

    Keep up the good work.

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