This year, the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA), a statewide public interest environmental law firm based in St. Paul, marks its 40th anniversary. A lot has happened in 40 years and it's not only an opportunity to celebrate the tremendous environmental progress Minnesota has made to the benefit of all of us, but also to reflect on the challenges we will face over the next 40 years.

Back in the 1960s and early 1970s, before MCEA was founded, Minnesota's air and water were seriously polluted. The Mississippi River, as it flowed through the Twin Cities, was lifeless. Not even carp could survive. The surface was covered with slimy mats of raw sewage, industrial sludge and slaughterhouse waste, and the smell in the summer could be overpowering.

The air wasn't much better. Every car and truck on the new Interstate 94 between Minneapolis and St. Paul belched lead and carbon monoxide, as they did throughout Minnesota. Smokestacks from power plants and manufacturers poured toxic emissions into the atmosphere. A thick, yellowish-brown haze settled over the Twin Cities metropolitan area on bad-air days in summer and winter.

But beginning with the passage of the U.S. Clean Air Act in 1970, the U.S. Clean Water Act in 1972, and Minnesota-based versions of these laws that MCEA lawyers drafted and helped get passed in those early years, strong environmental regulation turned the tide. Today, the Mississippi River supports a thriving fish population and is a designated national recreational area. Concentrations of airborne lead and carbon monoxide have dropped more than 90 percent. Concentrations of particulate matter — dust and soot — have dropped more than 80 percent. Air pollution reductions alone have increased average life expectancies of Twin Cities' residents by nearly six months.

Gains from cleaning up

Despite that track record of success, we still often see business lobbies fight good environmental standards every step of the way. The refrain has been constant. Environmental regulations are "job killers." Minnesota's high environmental standards are "driving business away from the state." A look at the facts shows that attitude has been, at best, shortsighted and, at worst, completely unmoored from reality.

The economic return on environmental investments has been enormous. No question, compliance can be costly, but those investments produce results. For example, the federal Office of Management and Budget estimates that every dollar spent on reducing fine particulates in the air returns $30 in lower health care costs, fewer lost workdays, fewer asthma cases, fewer heart attacks and strokes, and fewer premature deaths.

Tough environmental standards don't "kill" jobs. They create them. Today, because of those supposed "job killing" regulations, thousands of Minnesotans have high-value-added jobs devoted directly to addressing environmental problems and helping businesses stay in compliance. Because of the pressure from environmental requirements, many Minnesota companies have made enormous efficiency gains that have allowed them to expand and employ more people.

The state-based comparisons are favorable as well. With almost no exceptions, states like Minnesota, which are perceived to have the toughest environmental regulations and the most aggressive enforcement, also have the most vibrant economies and the greatest job growth. The facts don't lie. Protecting the environment is not only good for public health and quality of life — it's good for Minnesota business.

That is not to say we should all declare victory and go home. As scientists keep reminding us, there are no "safe" levels of air or water pollution. Smokestack and drain pipes may be cleaner, but we have yet to really confront so-called "nonpoint" air and water pollution from unregulated farms, small businesses, homes and vehicles. As our state Health Department has emphasized, in Minnesota there are wide class and racial disparities when it comes to exposure to toxic pollution. And, the absolute necessity of eliminating greenhouse-gas emissions and adapting to climate change is the defining issue of our time.

These are difficult challenges, and many believe they are beyond the capability of our polarized, paralyzed political culture to fix. But that kind of environmental pessimism has long been with us. Back in the early 1970s, many environmentalists predicted irreversible ecological doom, and most businesses predicted that the new environmental regulations would bankrupt American industry. Both were wrong then, and many are wrong today.

In 1974, when MCEA was founded, probably only a few thought the Mississippi River could ever come back, or we could ever get the lead or carbon monoxide out of the air. The fact is we did, and we can solve today's problems as well. The recipe remains the same: tough environmental standards, environmental advocates holding government accountable, and innovative, farsighted businesses making the technological leaps necessary to reduce pollution at reasonable cost.

Margaret Mead once said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." Her observation still stands true today.