Rarely has a Minnesota House committee hearing come to such a colorful close as it did on Tuesday. After listening to back-and-forth testimony on legislation that would require legislative approval of new water-protection standards for Minnesota lakes and rivers, Rep. John Persell accurately summed up a complicated issue with one epic, uniquely Minnesota utterance:
Noting that many Minnesota cities have done their part to meet new phosphorus-reduction requirements from wastewater treatment plants, Persell, DFL-Bemidji, said this is a fairness issue, that other cities don’t want to do their part.
According to testimony at the House Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee hearing, the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities played a key role in writing the legislation. Phosphorus is a pollutant that spurs algae growth and can turn sky-blue water into pea-soup green. Currently, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) takes the lead in determining water-quality standards and issuing permits for wastewater plants.
“That ain’t right! That ain’t fair! That ain’t the way we do things in Minnesota!’’ Persell said in regard to H.F. 616 and 617, which would wrongly insert the Legislature into a process that should be guided by science instead of politics. “I just want to say I support what you’re trying to do, MPCA, and let’s do the right thing here and support standards the way they’re supposed to be developed.’’
In a state known for its lakes and as home to the headwaters of the Mississippi River, water quality has long been an issue with broad bipartisan support in Minnesota. But in this legislative session, there’s troubling bipartisan support for legislation that would allow politicians to delay or veto new protections proposed for water that Minnesotans drink and swim and fish in.
H.F. 616 and 617, carried by Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, calls for legislative signoff on new water-quality standards, which are essentially a goal set for how much of a pollutant a water body can handle and remain healthy. His second bill would require additional scientific and cost reviews of MPCA protections.
Legislation has also been introduced in the House and Senate to prevent enforcement of the state’s longtime standard for sulfate. This pollutant is linked to mining and wastewater discharge and can harm natural stands of wild rice. Controversy over the state’s sulfate standard has been swirling for several years as its scientific footing undergoes review. Enforcing the standard will add to the price tag of proposed Iron Range mining projects and will be costly for current operations to adhere to.
Industry and special interests have lent these pieces of legislation broad support. Legislators from mining areas, as well as outstate districts with small sewage plants in need of updates, are also pushing this. And that’s the problem. Water protection isn’t merely an economic development issue.
But giving veto power to legislators over new safeguards would boil the debate down to that — a result that would not serve Minnesotans and future generations well.
Legislative tinkering with standards is also a dubious strategy given that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has authority to impose more forceful interventions, something the agency has done elsewhere.
Environmental advocates opposing these bills have been their own worst enemy, however. They have conveyed the message that those on the other side don’t care about clean water. That’s not accurate, and it has been a roadblock to finding common ground. The reality is that wastewater updates are costly, which is a serious concern for small cities and rural communities, especially because standards for other pollutants besides phosphorus are coming in the future. Fabian deserves credit for putting a spotlight on this. (Upgrades are also daunting to industry, but that should be looked at as a cost of doing business here.)
Fortunately, Minnesota already has an organization that provides a number of grants and low-interest loans to communities facing this very dilemma. It’s called the Minnesota Public Facilities Authority. It’s also worth noting that the MPCA can already work with communities to provide flexibility in meeting new discharge requirements.
The solution is not to go backward when it comes to water protection or make it a political football. Rather, it’s to ensure that communities get the help they need. Legislators should be focusing on the Public Facilities Authority to ensure that it continues to have the resources needed to help communities across Minnesota protect treasured waterways now and into the future.