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Paul Austin

Exec. Director, Conservation Minnesota

Rochester and Duluth-based Minnesota Power to find coal alternatives

It seems Independence Day took on a whole new meaning this year as the result of a couple of announcements that few people likely even noticed. 

Just before the long holiday weekend, the Rochester Public Utilities (RPU) Board announced that they have a plan in place to make Minnesota’s third largest city independent from coal-fired energy production by 2030. This will be the time its current energy purchase agreement with the Southern Minnesota Municipal Power Agency expires. 

And then just after the holiday, Duluth-based Minnesota Power announced that it would stop burning coal in its Taconite Harbor 1 & 2 plants in Schroeder on the North Shore by the year 2020. 

While neither announcement received a great deal of publicity, each of these organizations deserves praise for recognizing and addressing the issues created by our continued dependence on coal. For example, in addition to established links to increased asthma and heart disease rates, scientists have also found that coal-power plants are a key contributor to increased mercury levels in our lakes. 

The announcement from RPU is especially exciting. We know they recently conducted a poll of its users that asked questions about coal independence. While they have yet to release the results of their polling, the timing of this announcement makes it seem highly likely that the people’s voice was heard loud and clear. 

And a recent survey conducted by Conservation Minnesota found a great deal of support for increasing the use of renewable energy and decreasing dependence on coal among Minnesota Power customers. Their decision to cut coal usage is a clear sign that they have their finger on the pulse of what their members want.

Minnesota Power and RPU are not the first to move away from coal, but these two are the largest groups to date to do so. Earlier this year, the city of Cologne announced that they would be the first city in the state to utilize solar energy to power 100 percent of its city buildings.  And on the Iron Range, the cities of Virginia and Hibbing have been burning timber industry waste for nearly a decade now, displacing the need for 150,000 tons of coal each year. 

Later this summer, the EPA will release its rule on power plants called the Clean Power Plan. With all of this activity currently occurring on the state level, it is clear that Minnesota’s largest energy producers and consumers are taking proactive steps to prepare for what appears likely to be a tough new standard for the future of American power. 

Hopefully these moves toward energy independence will initiate a broader conversation around the state as municipalities and energy producers alike look at what the future holds. With the price of renewable energy options like solar and wind power dropping to financially competitive levels with traditional fossil fuel sources, now is a perfect opportunity to move toward more renewable energy production options.

Paul Austin: Standing up for clean water

If you’re reading this, you are likely already aware that after a contentious end of session, Governor Dayton vetoed three omnibus budget bills, which created the need for a special session of the Minnesota Legislature.  While he clearly had his reasons for vetoing the bills, the media reports seem to be rather light on details. 

I want to tell you why I support Governor Dayton’s decision to veto the Agriculture and Environment bill. 

* Since 1967, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) has received advice from a Citizen’s Board that was created to take politics out of the important work of environmental protection. Despite an unblemished record of quietly doing the work of the state, the conference committee chose to add language to eliminate the board in the final hours of session. Decisions like this, if they are needed, deserve a full and proper debate, and that did not happen this session.

* In a year of budget surplus, another provision in the bill pertaining to landfill cleanup seems equally ill advised. The bill raided nearly $60 million from an account that was created to handle the expense of cleaning up pollution created by closed landfills. Raiding a dedicated account is bad governance in tough economic times. It is even harder to justify in times of budgetary surplus. 

* The bill also includes a gift for polluters by requiring that the state give companies a three-week notice before initiating an environmental review. This provision would allow companies with potential violations to seek the proper permits for their level of pollution in an effort to head off the planned review of their actions.

* And for polluters who self-report violations of state environmental regulations, the bill would provide amnesty by delaying enforcement and waiving penalties for the regulated parties. This is a large new loophole for polluters that never had a full hearing in the Legislature. The MPCA strongly opposes this provision.

* Finally, the bill requires the MPCA to conduct duplicative peer reviews of water quality standards, and expensive additional cost analyses of existing and anticipated water quality standards. These provisions would significantly delay implementation of work to clean up our lakes and rivers.

This legislative assault on the state’s ability to protect water quality stands in stark contrast to the Governor’s insistence that we begin cleaning up polluted water with enforceable buffer strips along all of our waterways.  From their votes for the Legacy Amendment in 2008 to their overwhelming support for the buffer legislation this year, the people of Minnesota have made it clear which direction we should head.  Legislators of both parties should follow their lead.   

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