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Legislature makes a sweeping assault on Minnesota’s environmental traditions

Two experienced, moderate advocates see a generation of progress on environmental stewardship at risk, with no guarantee of help from Washington.

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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.