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Legislature makes a sweeping assault on Minnesota’s environmental traditions

One of the proposals involves the weakening of clean-water standards and enforcement in ways that violate federal requirements and seem to invite a fight with Washington.

When people like Whitney Clark and Steve Morse call out the Minnesota Legislature for a “full frontal assault” on the state’s traditions of environmental stewardship, for an “unprecedented” trashing of established and accepted practice, it’s time to take notice.

Both men are activists of long standing. Clark is executive director at Friends of the Mississippi River (after earlier work at Clean Water Action and Citizens for a Better Environment). Morse has the same role at the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, a coalition of 70 nonprofits working for progress in a wide range of conservation and energy venues (after earlier service as a DFL state senator from Winona and as a deputy commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources).

You may trust me when I say neither is a bomb-thrower. These guys are moderates who manage established outfits (some would call FMR and MEP Establishment outfits). They value coalition-building, respect the ordinary political realities, don’t go picking fights with lawmakers they’ll need to work with down the road.

But these are not times of ordinary political reality, they said in recent interviews.

Clark: I’ve been working in the nonprofit environmental advocacy sector for 30 years now and I’ve never seen anything like this, both at the federal and state level.

Because of President Trump’s directives to cut federal budgets and dial down enforcement, he said,

We effectively have no foreseeable federal backstop for the next several years — combined with very likely major cuts to funding that our own state environmental agencies receive from the federal government. Added to that, we now have this full frontal assault on Minnesota’s pretty decent, until now, bedrock protections for clean water, environmental review and a host of other values that have been in place in some cases since the 1970s.

What’s going on could set us back a generation in terms of the progress we’ve made.

Morse: It’s a mess, unprecedented on so many fronts. The sheer number of attacks is staggering.

It’s not only the budget bills, which are just atrocious — making so many big, mean-spirited cuts when there’s surplus money on the table. It feels like open season on all our fundamental policies, a multitude of attacks on just about every issue imaginable, from clean water standards to local government authority to pipeline permitting.

The other thing I think is really noteworthy this year is changes in public access to the process. So, we have 70 different groups in our coalition, representing hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans, and we go to testify and we’re told we get two minutes — or they say, we’re only taking written testimony.  Such a difference from when I was there, when occasionally you’d sometimes have to hurry someone along a little, but you let them have their say.

Really, the bills are set before anybody ever sees them, and the committees don’t really work on the bills. The testimony is perfunctory: They have to allow some public participation, so they do it boom boom boom, two minutes each, oftentimes no questions or dialogue: Let’s move along.

Buffers, mining, feedlots…

Among the attacks they identified as most damaging:

  • Major undoing of the new buffer rules to protect lakes and streams from agricultural runoff — Gov. Mark Dayton’s signature clean-water accomplishment — including a two-year delay in the overall program, and a requirement that farmers and other landowners be reimbursed for their costs via illegal diversions of Legacy funds from the special sales-tax amendment.
  • Weakening of clean-water standards and enforcement in ways that violate federal requirements and seem to invite a fight with Washington.
  • Limiting citizen rights to challenge new mining permits for, say, copper/nickel projects proposed by PolyMet Corp. and Twin Metals in the north woods canoe country.
  • Doubling the size of feedlot operations that require an assessment of their environmental impacts.
  • Allowing corporations to prepare environmental impact statements in a way that shields key data and analysis from public inspection.
  • Removing a requirement that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency set new health standards for dust exposure at frac-sand mines.
  • Undercutting local governments’ authority by prohibiting them from imposing bans or fees on plastic bags, and making it harder for them to adopt short-term moratoriums on sand mines, feedlots and other projects with troubling environmental impacts.
Whitney Clark
Whitney Clark

Harder to summarize, but of at least equal concern, is a large set of adjustments in the procedures used by the MPCA, DNR and other agencies to apply existing law — for example, by requiring that the usual guidance they publish on how to comply with environmental rules be treated essentially as brand-new rules, subject to a long and cumbersome review process.

“Most of this is happening out of the public’s view, because it’s complicated and bureaucratic.” Clark said. “People care about drinking water, healthy fisheries, clean lakes and streams, but this is at a level of detail that is difficult for people who don’t understand the technical aspects of environmental review, of Clean Water Act administration, how standards are set.

“So there hasn’t been very much news coverage either, and what there has been is probably unintelligible to the average reader, because they can’t make the connection between these issues and the impact on drinking water, our aquifers, the quality of our lakes and the fish in our streams.”

Strategic packaging

Another feature of this session, according to Morse and Clark, is an expanded use of “omnibus” bills that package together a wide range of measures that once would have been considered separately. The content of the mishmash is harder to grasp, and support for individual provisions is harder to track.

Despite Gov. Mark Dayton’s request that budget and policy matters be dealt with separately, these are also blended together in the omnibus measures, which makes them harder to veto. I asked Morse if this didn’t also make it harder for voters to hold lawmakers accountable, and he chuckled: “You can always find something in a bill like this to justify your vote.”

As of Monday the Senate and House were in agreement on an omnibus environment and natural resources bill that runs to some 118 pages; the expectation is that negotiations with the governor’s office will begin after Easter, when lawmakers return from a break.

Steve Morse
Steve Morse

The Senate vote to pass the omnibus bill was 37 to 29, with the Republicans’ yeas augmented by Kent Eken of Twin Valley, John Hoffman of Champlin and David Tomassoni of Chisholm. On the House side, where the vote was 80 to 53, the Republicans were joined by DFLers Jason Metsa of Virginia, Rob Ecklund of International Falls and Paul Marquart of Dilworth.

I suppose six DFL votes may be enough to look like bipartisan support to some onlookers. Not so much for DFL Rep. Rick Hansen of South St. Paul, perhaps the Legislature’s most effective voice at the moment for sensible environmental policy, who took his name off the measure in disgust at Republican abuses.

Beyond the omnibus

While the omnibus bills are where the main action has been, there are other measures of concern as well, some because they duplicate important provisions in the omnibus bill or each other. For example, Morse said at least three measures include the prohibition against local bans on plastic bags.

He also pointed to provisions in the agriculture omnibus bill that would undo recent protections, and limit future restrictions, that help bees and other pollinators burdened by pesticides. Then there is the energy bill, with a pipelines provision that would essentially prevent the kind of state review that ultimately led Enbridge to abandon the Sandpiper project.

You want to talk about a way to create massive civil disobedience? Pipeline companies have eminent domain authority to condemn and put a pipeline through your land. One of the checks on that was, they had to go to the Public Utilities Commission and get a certificate of need. The energy bill takes away that process, so they don’t have to make the case for a new line to anybody.

Clark’s FMR is particularly concerned about a House-only “stealth” bill that, in its analysis, “gives individual legislative committees unchecked authority to block agencies from adopting or even holding public hearings for proposed rules. Rather than requiring the Legislature to justify such a block, the bill makes it an agency’s burden to prove that a block is unjustified.”

With essentially no ability to influence legislative action on these assaults, Clark and Morse said, the environmental advocacy community is assuming the eventual outcome will be determined by how vigorously Gov. Dayton is willing to use his veto power, and how much support he can find among Senate DFLers to sustain him. The biggest unknown is whether the showdown can be resolved without another government shutdown.

So you could say the outlook is grim, and Whitney Clark would not disagree:

I hear people saying, thank God for Mark Dayton, he can stop this. And obviously he has a veto pen, and the Republican majority in the Senate is only one seat, and as we’ve seen in the past — 2015 being the latest good example — the governor can’t stop everything. And he’s got a big agenda of his own.

I’m also hearing people say, well, the House is up [for re-election] in two years and the Senate in four, so we can always reverse some of these excesses. But as you know, passing progressive environmental legislation has not been easy in recent times — even when the DFL has control of both chambers there has been a fair amount of pushback in this area.

Even in a future, better political period for the environment it will be very difficult to put some of these things  back in place.

Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Rod Loper on 04/05/2017 - 10:15 am.

    Hard to watch

    This parallels what is going on with the Trump administration. Cutting agency funding, demanding
    rapid turnaround on permits while revisiting existing standards with redundant process while giving
    unctuous lip service to caring about clear air and clean water. The radicals are in charge at all levels of government.

  2. Submitted by Nancy Gibson on 04/05/2017 - 12:35 pm.

    environmental assault

    A class of 14 year olds asked me “Why do Republicans hate our natural resources so much?” I was relieved to know they are watching this destruction but that message has to follow them home for their parents to act. Don’t bother signing petitions, call your legislator today, email them a personal note and get your neighbors to do the same. Don’t forget to thank Governor Dayton. Steve Morse and Whitney Clark can lead better with broader advocacy.

    The Republican party that passed the Clean Water, Clean Air and Endangered Species Act is dead. In its places lies those willing to be bought by dirty industry. Who is asking for their drinking water to be poisoned, their air to clouded with toxic particulates, or their voices mugged from participation in critical state resource decisions? Remember, Minnesotans voted for a slight tax increase in 2008 to spend more money to insure our natural legacy. Now we need to make our natural resources top priority again. The caucuses last night in Minneapolis are a good sign that we are watching.

    The next generation is watching too, call or write today!

    • Submitted by Bob Petersen on 04/06/2017 - 08:23 am.

      Why do kids think this?

      It’s kind of scary to think that a whole class of kids think one group of people only think a certain way, no matter what it is. Go one step further to say that they think a group of people ‘hate.’ Makes you wonder what and how they are being taught. Sad.

  3. Submitted by Joe Smith on 04/05/2017 - 12:46 pm.

    Thank goodness for some cut backs!

    I am pleased that individuals can no longer file law suits to harass the permitting process of projects they oppose. There are permitting rules in place and once the industry passes the permitting process it should not be held up by an individual that doesn’t agree with them. Dayton’s “buffer rules” were outrageous and an attack on land owners across the state. Eliminating duplicate redundant policies/rules/regulations enforced by multiple groups (EPA, DNR, MPCA , Dept of game and fish, not to mention the private groups who influence Govt agencies) will not hurt the environment. There is still plenty of over site in every aspect of the environment, reducing the red tape is a good thing for landowners and businesses.

    Too bad so many folks who have never dealt with this agencies will be the first to scream foul. I wonder how many screaming have built a building over a certain size (now required to build a parking lot for that building), then having to spend thousands of dollars to get permits for water run off from 3-4 agencies who don’t have the same regulations. That process costing business owner thousands of dollars and weeks of hold ups while the multiple agencies try to agree on what is acceptable. Do that a couple times and you would be saying “thank goodness” too.

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 04/05/2017 - 10:33 pm.

      Define plenty of oversight

      When water is still being continuously polluted, this very second, from sites both residential and commercial. How about when air quality warning are issued, and folks with breathing problems are advised to stay indoors, oversight you say? What you seem to miss is that the present state of affairs is miles less than good enough. For Pete’s sake (not the terminology I’d use if given a choice) every body of water in North America is STILL poisoned by mercury as a result of doing things your way. You expect we should want to return to THAT?

    • Submitted by Bill Willy on 04/06/2017 - 12:25 pm.

      I think they call it “planning”

      So you’re saying someone built a building “over a certain size” and THEN found out they’d need to build a parking lot and THEN found out they’d have to take water runoff into consideration and THEN get a permit?

      And it cost them thousands because it took weeks?

      And that happened to them more than once?

      And that was the government’s fault?

      I see buildings of ALL sizes going up all the time. Whoever’s building them doesn’t seem to have had TOO much trouble getting whatever permits they’ve needed.

      For example, in just the past year I’ve seen:

      — A new Holiday gas station being built on a lot that was demoed (old structures torn down) right across the street from their existing station. Parking lot, gas storage tanks, no apparent problem getting permits.

      — A five story apartment building across the street from the Holiday station. Underground parking, commercial property on one side of the ground level, large parking lot there, no apparent problem getting permits.

      — A four story condominium project being built “downtown,” right across the road from the lake. Lots of parking, no apparent massive problem getting permits (right next to a lake, no less).

      Those are just three projects (out of dozens of smaller ones happening every day) in a small outstate town that would fit the “certain size” category you mentioned. Apparently, the people building those structures knew (in advance) they needed parking lots and permits and, obviously, were able to get them AND get their projects done without going broke.

      Hard to say, but there’s at least a chance that whoever you’re using as an example MAY be having more of a “planning and execution” problem than a “Big Government regulations” problem.

  4. Submitted by Carl Karasti on 04/05/2017 - 12:47 pm.

    Journalism and citizen engagement

    Journalism, including investigative journalism in particular, has been failing us. This became especially clear during our recent election cycle. In spite of this, subscriptions for higher quality publications have risen because fo a belated but growing recognition that We the People desperately need real news reporting and good investigative journalism. If journalism wants to not only survive but actually thrive, news publications need to realize and recognize this and embrace their roll of being in service to We the People and to our Nation.

    This article is quite helpful, but it could have been presented better; more simply, clearly and directly so as to be even more accessible. Issues may be complicated, complex, minimally interesting and daunting. They must nevertheless be tracked down, followed, broken down and presented promptly, consistently and simply with context and good analysis. This is the only way that We the People really have of finding out what is going on, and why, and then knowing how to respond.

    The essence of our form of government of, by and for We the People requires that we be engaged in our government as fully as possible, regardless of the complexities of the challenges, both natural and man made, that we all face together. In order for this process to work, we need information rather than infotainment. We need real facts, not alternative un-facts. We need serious reporting rather than drama with click-bait headlines. (The headline for this article is good.)

    We the People also need to do a better job of voting, every time for every office at all levels. We in Minnesota do better at this than just about any other state, but we can still do even better, provided we have good information to work with to determine who and what to vote for. We need to know what all of our elected officials are doing so we can work to hold them accountable for representing our needs and interests rather than the agenda of the special interests of Big Business that seeks to maximize profits at our expense.

    Above all, we need to always keep in mind that protecting Mother Earth, our one and only home, is one of our primary interests. Expediting consideration of environmental impacts and simplifying or limiting regulation of corporations for their convenience goes against our long term best interests, and our elected officials need to understand that.

  5. Submitted by Don Evanson on 04/05/2017 - 03:58 pm.

    Tge result of decades of overreach….

    Whitney Clark laments, “But as you know, passing progressive environmental legislation has not been easy in recent times — even when the DFL has control of both chambers there has been a fair amount of pushback in this area.”

    Yes, there are those all across the political spectrum that are feed up with the hyperbole and overreach of the radical environmental movement over the decades. The movement needs to learn to delineate between hype and science, if it is to regain public confidence.

    What has set up the tone of the Republican legislative caucuses was Dayton’s land-grab for one-size-fits-all buffer strips, and without compensation for takings. Generations of rural property owners are entitled to continued use of their land as their predecessors did. Ideally, through education, persuasion, and example, we will see increasing concern for water quality, even in the face of the hype regarding degrading water quality, but, until there is respect for property rights and their time-hallowed importance, stuffing regulation doing the throats of landowners won’t cut bait. This assault is no different than attempting to tell other entrepreneurs that portions of their asset base cannot be used for time-honored productive purposes.

    I don’t know Clark, but I do know Morse — remember Al Gore and his hype and goofy predictions? For Meador to say that Morse is not a bomb thrower overlooks his radical environmental past and present (and that of his Winona County siblings.)

    Meador himself also needs to step back and reassess his advocacy journalism. BTW, Ron, you lastly refer to Clark in your column as Wesley.

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 04/06/2017 - 08:40 pm.

      Lets make this clear

      We don’t care what “time honored traditions” are being lost. Quit polluting OUR water. If farmers want to poison themselves, fine, I wouldn’t recommend it, but that’s their choice. When it leaves their land, that right ends. The time for gentle persuasion passed long ago, they and their property rights are no more special than everyone else and our right to unpolluted water, period.

  6. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/06/2017 - 10:09 am.

    This is a nice illustration

    …of the Republican desire to rule, not govern. Mr. Smith’s commentary largely follows that same philosophy. Elections have consequences, and we’re now seeing some of those consequences. When you elect authoritarians, they’re going to behave as authoritarians. When you elect people who believe capitalists can do no wrong, they’re going to provide capitalists with free rein to do as they wish.

    We already tried this in the 19th century, and the result was environmental (and social) catastrophe.

    Governor Dayton’s buffer rules, for example, are outrageous only if you think poisoning Mr. Smith’s drinking water (and mine) is just a collateral byproduct of “efficient agriculture,” and nothing to get very excited about. Of course, if I pour poison into Mr. Smith’s well specifically, it’s a criminal act on my part, but strangely enough, quite a few farmers, and the Republican Party supporting them, don’t mind collectively poisoning local water supplies, streams and lakes because, after all, it’s “their” land, and any effects their actions might have on my health and well-being (or yours) are basically tough luck, and for Mr. Smith, as well.

    As Mr. Smith suggests, reducing government oversight (another term that might be used here is “government protection”) probably is a good thing for certain types of landowners and businesses. It’s just not a good thing for the majority of Minnesotans, who aren’t that keen on putting other people’s health and lives in jeopardy. Mr. Smith’s myopia is, to phrase it politely, stunning.

    The fact that significant numbers of Minnesota’s iconic lakes can’t be safely fished or swum in, and that a similar number of streams in some parts of the state are basically dangerous to swim in or drink from because of agricultural pollution, is apparently something that the rest of us non-farmers should just shut up about and let the real men decide what, if anything, to do about it. So far, those real men have opposed doing something meaningful to address this agricultural poisoning at every turn, but I suppose they have Mr. Smith’s support, even if not the Governor’s.

    • Submitted by Bill Willy on 04/07/2017 - 01:44 pm.


      As usual, well said.

      But, having said that, I can’t let this one slide by without saying your use of the words “swum in” not only made me laugh, but was “quietly spectacular.”

      I say that because I can’t remember ever reading anything in the context of “news and commentary” in which the word “swum,” or the phrase “swum in,” was used at all, let alone used so correctly.

      And, directly related to that and what Matt has been saying, it may be a good time to remind our, “Enough is enough — we need deregulation now!” victim friends of the article that appeared in the StarTribune way back in 2015 that said HALF the lakes and rivers in Southern Minnesota were (and still are) TOO POLLUTED to be fished or swum in.

      If you’re someone who thinks over-regulation is “the problem” (like that comes anywhere near making sense or being accurate), or that everyone (the MPCA, farmers and companies like Cargill, Monsanto and their compatriots in the AgriChemical and factory farming industries) is “doing all they can” to reduce the poison level of their own and everyone else’s water, you MAY want to read (or re-read) that article and maybe think about what it says for five or ten minutes before saying another word on this topic.

      You may want to do that because while getting all puffed up and huffy about Big Government, over-regulation, radical environmental extremists (like Ray) and “God-given Rights” may make you FEEL all good and righteous, it isn’t doing a lot for your “Apparent Native Intelligence Profile” (your ANIP).

      And as we all know, in the long-run, that’s never a good thing.

  7. Submitted by Joe Musich on 04/06/2017 - 09:23 pm.

    In the face of reality …,

    legistative barriers are being torn down simply because thoughtless people now have control and they are exercising their power in the face of public health.

  8. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 04/09/2017 - 07:32 am.

    Theft of public land, air and water by private interests.

    Air, water and government land and this we share, but are things private interests want to own and control. You get to breath the air and use it is for your business, but you have no right to pollute it with smoke, particulates or noxious smells. Those who pollute are rightly expected to mitigate. Same is true for water. In Falls from the sky, bubbled up from the land and crosses your property. You get to make reasonable use, but not foul it so it useless or poisonous to the next period. Same if true with public land. You get to Camp on it, walk on it and use if for grazing even do plantings. but that doesn’t make it their own.

    What Republicans propose amount to a theft of a public asset. Let me give an analogy to hunting. Real hunters buy licenses and follow the law. They use a public asset without destroying it. It can be argued that wildlife numbers are high because people who follow the rules. Then there are poachers, who follow none of the tiles. In some places poaching may be a tradition, but it is never anything more than Theft of something that isn’t yours. Poachers are not hunters and pay dearly for their selfishness. Those who break the rules to steal or ruin public air. water and land are just as evil as poachers, and the Republicans who enable them have no clue if the harm they do on behalf of “freedom.”

  9. Submitted by Jim Hulbert on 04/09/2017 - 09:00 am.

    WWTWD – What would Tim Walz do?

    As the strongest horse in the DFL race for nomination for governor, Rep. Tim Walz needs to tell us how he would continue the DFL firewall against Republican abuses, especially these environmental abuses? It’s time for Mr Walz to build a case for his active stewardship. The next election may install a few more thoughtful environmentally-conscious folks in our State legislature, but will these numbers be enough to restore sensible governance? At minimum, we’ll need a Governor who will defend us all. Mr. Walz, it’s time for you to respond to the serious concerns of White and Morse!.

  10. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 04/11/2017 - 03:03 pm.


    Came to the same conclusion a long time ago: However when chided that “Republicans are Pro-Pollution” the recipient blew up at me, that they are just against over regulation. OK, point out the over regulation that is bad for the environment. The silence was deafening! Reality as one stated, they are poachers, they make money by dumping their pollution/cost on the general population.
    Mr. Smith, we think it is outrageous that you believe you have a right to pollute the commons at everyone else s expense. Also that you believe it is your right to dump large volumes of surface water onto public drainage systems and again expect the average tax payer to pick up the bill for expanding the city drainage systems to handle the water! We know how so called “free marketers” think, free to dump their costs on everyone else.

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