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Why lawmakers want to fundamentally change how the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency does business

Banning State Park river
At the center of it all are two controversial water regulations set by the PCA: the state’s new phosphorus standard for rivers and a looming decision on sulfate levels in water to protect wild rice crops.

If there were a contest to name the least popular state department at this year’s legislative session, there’s little doubt which would win: The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

Over the years, the agency has often found itself in the middle of passionate disputes between environmental groups and business in its capacity as the state agency charged with setting and enforcing clean air and water standards.

But those long-simmering tensions have come bubbling to the surface in this year’s session. At the center of it all are two controversial water regulations set by the PCA: the state’s new phosphorus standard for rivers, which was put in place to prevent things like algae growth; and a looming decision on sulfate levels in water to protect wild rice crops. Both regulations have major implications for the mining industry and local governments that operate wastewater treatment facilities.

Yet many of the legislative efforts aimed at the PCA go beyond tweaking specific rules. Members of the new Republican House majority, who campaigned on a pro-mining platform, are interested in limiting everything from the PCA’s power to set certain water quality standards to the influence of its citizen board. And they’ve found eager companions in many Senate Democrats, whose leader, Tom Bakk, hails from rural Cook on the Iron Range.

“Lawmakers are extremely frustrated with state agencies and are looking at how to rein in rulemaking that is costing businesses and local governments money,” said Marty Seifert, a former House Republican legislator who now lobbies on behalf of outstate interests for the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, which is pushing some of the new legislation. “The PCA is going to have a tough slog in both the House and the Senate. Something is going to be done at the end of the day.”

History of the PCA 

The Minnesota Legislature established the PCA in the 1960s, after two oil-tank spills did major damage to Minnesota waterways. Minnesota was an early adopter of environmental regulations — at the time, the federal government hadn’t even created the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the nation had yet to celebrate its first Earth Day.

The agency was charged with a big and broad responsibility: to protect Minnesota’s air, water and land from future damage. A charge came to the agency in the early 1970s to apply a universal standard to waters for wild rice, an economically and culturally significant state crop in northern Minnesota. Studies found wild rice could be damaged in waters with high sulfate levels. Those levels could be increased by runoff from nearby mining facilities or wastewater treatment plants.

That’s when the state set the so-called 10 standard: 10 milligrams of sulfate per liter. In 2011, however, a new Republican-controlled Legislature tried to change the standard, which business groups said was outdated and far too low. Facing opposition from the EPA, legislators instead passed funding for a study to reevaluate the standard, directing the PCA to designate wild rice waters across the state.

But the study, done in partnership with the University of Minnesota and released in January of 2014, only served to reinforce the 10 standard, finding that sulfate hurts wild rice when it turns into hydrogen sulfide. In response, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, a longtime opponent of the standard, questioned the study’s methodology and commissioned its own evaluation that suggested the real number should be closer to 1,600 milligrams of sulfate per liter.

State Rep. Carly Melin
State Rep. Carly Melin

The PCA has yet to set final rules related to the standard or designated specific bodies of water across the state for wild rice production, a move that has irked the Legislature’s Iron Range contingent, who say the 10 standard is still being applied in permits “erratically” across the state.

“Not knowing what standard applies to a particular body of water makes it impossible for municipalities and industry to properly plan at their treatment facilities,” said Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, who is a co-author on a bill to require the PCA to list all wild rice waters across the state. The proposal would also prevent the agency from using the 10 standard until it designates the waters. “It should not be the responsibility of these groups to research if nearby waters once grew wild rice in the last 50 years.”

The PCA says a list of wild rice waters and their decision on the sulfate level is due out during the early half of this year.

Concerns for local governments, businesses

But the brunt of the fire aimed at the PCA would do more than address particular concern about sulfates; it would go to the heart of the agency’s ability to set water regulations and rules in the first place.

Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, has introduced a bill that would require the PCA to get legislative approval for any new water-quality rule if it's expected to cost a business $5 million or a number of businesses a combined $50 million. Under the proposal, the PCA would also need to get an economic impact analysis for most new water-quality rules.

A companion bill would require an “independent peer review" of any regulation developed by a state agency. Similar legislation is being carried by Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, in the state Senate.

State Rep. Dan Fabian
State Rep. Dan Fabian

“I have a lot of cities in my district and in neighboring districts that are facing huge expenses to upgrade their sewage treatment systems and the water that’s discharged,” Fabian said. “When they talk about having to spend $40 million, a small city like East Grand Forks … I have some serious questions about the cost benefit to that project.”

Eken said the new phosphorus river standard could cost the city of Moorhead, which lies in his district, $10 million to comply with. He also doesn't think the proposals are “anti-environmental.”

“We all want to have a clean environment and a safe environment; we also want to have a strong and healthy and vibrant economy. You have to be looking at things in a totality,” he said. “It’s also about making sure you are putting dollars for environmental protection where you will get the most bang for your buck.”

Politicizing science? 

Not surprisingly, environmental groups don’t feel the same way, and they worry that the Legislature’s pro-industry tilt will politicize a process that should be based on science. “We don’t feel there is great leadership throughout the Legislature on these clean water issues and clear air issues, and we are concerned they could short-circuit the process,” Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, said. “There’s a lot of pressure to protect big mining interests.”

Morse says the bills could delay or block the process for setting standards. “The PCA is charged with taking the best science and taking the rules and procedures and putting them into practice,” Morse said. “This browbeats the agency to do things that are politically expedient.”

For its part, the PCA is taking a cautious approach when it comes to addressing how it operates. Shannon Lotthammer, director of the environmental analysis and outcome division at the PCA, says they are open to discussing the costs and processes that go into the agency’s work, but they are concerned the bills will slow things down.

“I have concerns about the ability to do things in a timely manner,” said Lotthammer. “Some of these bills require that standard to be submitted to the Legislature for approval. There’s already a lot of public input and a lengthy process that goes into developing these standards, but we also recognize that there are often divided opinions on many facets of water quality.”

But she also says the agency must be able to let science dictate its approach. “The standards themselves should be focused on what the science is and what the state should be doing to achieve a healthy and clean Minnesota. Minnesotans have said we want clean water, we want water that is drinkable and we want water we can swim in. We really use environmental science to inform our decisions.”

Citizens’ Board targeted

A nine-member Citizens’ Board is charged with addressing some of the agency’s most controversial decisions. The board includes the current commissioner of the PCA and eight other members appointed by the governor. Generally, the members have a scientific background, and one is required to have expertise in agriculture.

At a recent House Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee hearing, lawmakers had tough questions about the board, particularly about the level of public input into its decisions, and how businesses are notified when projects come before the board. Legislators asked if board members ever rejected recommendations from the agency and how the membership is broken up across the state geographically.

“There’s this message that, ‘Well, you don’t care enough [about the environment], and we just want to have some voice in the process here,’” Fabian said of the board. “You could say [the process is] already political, the Citizens’ Board ... what role does the Legislature have in appointing them?”

There are no official proposals introduced yet to deal with the makeup of that board, but Rep. Denny McNamara, a GOP legislator from Hastings and chair of the committee, signaled that he didn’t think the current system is working.  “I don’t think this process is serving the state correctly today,” McNamara said. “We need to fix this; this is broken.”

PCA Commissioner John Linc Stine, who has worked with the board since he joined the agency in 2012, defends the board’s role, saying it adds value to the agency’s deliberations. Members only occasionally go against the agency’s recommendations, he said, but they often make changes that make PCA decisions better.

“Board members come with a very serious attention to the work that they are doing,” Stine said. “It hasn’t been my experience that the board members take off on tangents.”

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Comments (14)

No

Sen. Eken, you clearly DO NOT care about preserving clean water and air, at least not at the price of economic pain, and potential political rancor in your district. Not good enough. Algae blooms don't care about your pocketbook, Neither do wild rice plants. As for the mining addicts, when do we take the gloves off and treat them as such? It's past time they quit looking for their next fix and do something to revitalize their region that won't rely on concurrently destroying it in the process. Were this a substance abuser there'd have been an intervention long ago, but the rangers still go on, insisting THIS time will be different, THIS time they'll stay in control, THIS time they won't screw things up for themselves and everyone in the future. Hard to trust folks who won't admit they have a problem.

What to do?

Hmmm. Dollars or drinkable water, dollars or harvestable wild rice, dollars or water people can swim in?

The choice for a rational person should be obvious.

I'd be willing to support Mr. Fabian and Mr. Eken if they can present to the legislature and the public an alternative to drinkable water, harvestable wild rice, and water safe to swim in. Offhand, my guess is that they can't.

"I'm not a scientist" doesn't work as a justification for what might be legislation enabling long-term harm to the only environment we're likely to ever have, especially when fully-qualified scientists are not only available, but have already done the sort of inquiry that a legislator might request. That inquiry suggests that Mr. Fabian and Mr. Eken are motivated by something other than the public welfare.

The PCA appears to be doing exactly the task assigned to it by the legislature when it was created. It does not reflect poorly on the PCA if the result of its investigation is a conclusion that mining or agricultural interests don't like. Costs to cities may well be a burden, but lots of things are inconvenient costs to cities. One rather obvious way to mitigate those costs would be for the cities, or mines, or agricultural communities, to abandon practices that make those pollution control costs so burdensome.

That abandonment doesn't necessarily require that cities, mines and farms no longer practice their core activity, just that they go about their business in a different and more environmentally-friendly way. That may be inconvenient, but it's not necessarily fatal to the enterprise. In fact, it provides an excellent opportunity for innovation and creative thought on the part of the industries and civic entities involved.

"We need the jobs NOW" or "It costs too much to change" are not viable – or even truthful – excuses if the consequence is the poisoning of future generations.

Not surprised.

The GOP won't be happy until it has sucked every dollar out of Minnesota's resources even if it means destroying those same resources. As far as these communities, there is a part of me that says go ahead and destroy your environment, only don't expect the state to pay to restore it. Go to those industries that destroyed it and get the money from them. Course they'll be using some of those profits to pay off the GOP to prevent you from succeeding.

It's a bit more bipartisan than you suggest.

.

Good Idea!

I think it's great that the legislature is working to strengthen Minnesota's greatest asset: its outdoors, tourist industry, and clean soil, water, and air that we all rely on. It's about time those individuals in St. Paul did something that helps out everyone--even the little guy--instead of just big business.

Wait, what's that you say? You mean they're not strengthening our pollution regulations and instead want to weaken or eliminate them? Well, color me blue and put me on a rocket ship to Mars! Who would have thunk that the GOP would ever want to pollute more in order to make a buck. They've never done that before!

It's like this, people. We only have one state here--it's not like someone is going to make another Minnesota for us. It's on us to keep it as clean as we can, rather than sell it to the highest bidder. The Minnesota River is already one of the most polluted waterways in the entire nation, which leads directly to the huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. And yet despite that massive amount of pollution some people think that it's still too little.

Now the plan is to
-Eliminate oversight entirely
-Weaken existing regulations if the above fails
-Change the oversight people at the top if the first two fail
-Get approval from businesses before any new rules can be implemented

I'm surprised they didn't propose to simply defund the agency, but I'm sure that proposal is coming when they get to the budget later in the year.

The objective is to hobble the agency so it becomes ineffective not just with the suplhates mentioned above, but with all oversight of all pollutants. Eating toxic sludge and tainted water is suddenly a good thing if someone can make a buck off of poisoning you? I don't get the thinking of some people here.

What level of poison would you accept in YOUR well?

"Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, has introduced a bill that would require the agency to get legislative approval for any new water-quality rule if the regulation was expected to cost any single business $5 million or any group of businesses a combined $50 million. Under the proposal, the PCA would also need to get an economic impact analysis for most new water-quality rules."

Question 1: What does "legislative approval" or the "cost to any single business or any group of businesses" have to do with whether or not substances are toxic and detrimental to the environment and health of the lives being lived in that environment?

Question 2: Does Dan Fabian, or any proponent of these changes, have any real knowledge of how complicated, time-consuming, expensive, and often incomplete and off-base, "economic impact analysis" is?

For (just one) example, this critique of an Economic Impact Analysis done by the University of Minnesota Duluth in 2012:

"The State of Minnesota is relying on a fatally flawed economic impact analysis to support sulfide ore mining in Northeastern Minnesota. Dr. Evan Hjerpe and Dr. Spencer Phillips found that the UMD study being used to project the Economic benefits of sulfide ore mining is of low quality and limited in scope."

The author's basic reasons for saying that are here:

http://www.nmworg.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/the_economics.pdf

Their more complete, 11-page review of that particular study is available here:

http://www.lakedetroiters.com/mm_uploads/Phillips_Hjerpe_UMD_Review_FINA...

The first paragraph of the longer review does a nice job of explaining the basic differences in economic impact analyses, their quality and varying degrees of usefullness.

And Dan Fabian and other proponents want the MPCA to do one such study for "most new water-quality rules"? How will that make government more efficient and eliminate red tape? How will it help curb government spending and save hard-working taxpayers money?

And - to get back to question #1 - what does "economic impact" have to do with whether or not something is poisoning, or will poison, a community's environment and health?

Finally, requiring "the agency to get legislative approval for any new water-quality rule" is absurd and nothing more than an effort to guarantee the "politicalization of pollution" and give environmental veto power to a group of people nowhere near qualified to understand or arrive at the scientific conclusions involved. If a "party" that strongly represented businesses interests were to be in control of the legislature there's a strong possibility that few - if any - proposed water safety rules that would add to business's cost-of-doing-business would be approved, regardless of the consequences.

There are 5.5 million citizens living - doing everything they do, some related to "business," many others not - in the environment called Minnesota.

There are just under 500,000 businesses.

When it comes to "the greater good," the perspective, desires, interests of 10-percent of Minnesota's population should not take precedence, or have veto power, over anything as critical to ALL citizen's overall well-being (not just monetary well-being) as protection of our environment.

wait

Just wait until the first lawsuit over a polluted well. Things will change rapidly then. They always do. Only then will the MPCA be given the power it needs sadly.

It's funny

It's funny -- before I read this article, if you had asked me to name my favorite state agency, it would have been the MPCA. I think they do a great job and are very well run.

Kind of shocking to hear that some thinks they're practically the devil incarnate.

PCA

There are many in the state that do not like the PCA. I think likely the majority of people who have had to deal with them does not like them. This doesn't necessarily mean they are doing a bad job or anything but people generally do not like dealing with them at all.

An Important Choice Being Made

The interests against the PCA talk as if they can do with their land anything they want. If what they do didn't go any farther than their land, then they would have a good argument. But, because what they do gets into the rivers, they want all the rest of us to live with phosphates and sulfates in our water. I get it that they feel "tough luck" about what the rest of us have to live with but I hope the legislature will feel that they are swinging their arms and hitting other peoples noses. And that shouldn't be allowed to happen.

Science Based

Is this another instance where politicians ignore science, like tha vaxxers and global warming deniers?

We need more facts, logic, and reasoning in our lives. And, I'm sorry to say, this is not it.

Cannot even .....

even ptotect the wild rice. Melin ? Guess you are on the the bus I would rather you were not. Democrats ued to stand for something. Frank Hibbing stood for something.

Hey conservative legislators and iron rangers..

The U.S. Constitution does not guarantee a mining or agribusiness a profit.

Phosphore a red herring.

Algae growth has become a major problem as EPA, as well as States never implemented the Clean Water Act, as intended.
Before anybody blames farmers, they first should look at how their own sewage is treated. What many do not know is that, when EPA set sewage treatment standards to implement the Clean Water Act (CWA), it used the 5-day test reading of the BOD (Biochemical Oxygen Demand) test, in stead of its full 30-day reading and thereby not only ignored 60% of the oxygen depleting pollution, but also all the nitrogenous (urine and protein) waste, while this waste is also a fertilizer fir algae. Too embarrassed having made such a mistake, EPA for years has claimed that this fertilizer, now called nutrient, pollution should have been regulated by the states. States, probably for the same reasons, have rejected this responsibility claiming it a federal responsibility. Meanwhile all attempts to correct this essential pollution test failed during the past 32 years and we still do not even know how sewage is treated and that many multi-million dollar sewage treatment plants are designed to treat the wrong waste.
Time to hold the EPA and everybody else directly, as well as indirectly (like environmental groups and the especially the media) accountable, provided of course if we really want to clean up our open waters.
Blaming farmers for a pollution that is not regulated in municipal sewage, does not make any sense.