Federal officials this month put Minnesota agencies on notice that they have not done enough to prevent nitrates — a toxic byproduct of fertilizers and livestock manure — from getting into people's drinking water, particularly in southeast Minnesota.
Now a legislative leader has a plan to pay for cleaning up the mess — a "polluters tax" paid by adding a fee on fertilizers.
Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, said at a committee hearing recently that "There has to be a 'polluter pays' model. Once the general public picks up these costs there will be no incentive for change. Why would anything change if someone else will be cleaning up the mess?"
The idea has merit.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency told the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Minnesota Department of Health that the agencies were not doing enough to identify and assist people with nitrate in their water.
If the state doesn't properly address the problem and hold farmers accountable, the feds can take emergency enforcement action.
The state has had rather limited success in increasing regulations in the face of the powerful farm lobby.
Southeast Minnesota is dominated by a terrain that lets water — and fertilizer and manure pollutants — move easily from the surface to underground drinking water.
While a fertilizer fee would be paid by everyone across the state, the nitrate problem is not limited to southeastern Minnesota. Citizens are more and more aware that the state's valuable water resources are under threat and need to be protected and, when necessary, cleaned up.