Speedway gas stations got permission to leave their fuel pumps unattended. The University of Minnesota can skip the weekly inspections that ensure containers of hazardous waste aren’t leaking. A large hog operation in Sleepy Eye, Minn., was OK’d to stock more pigs in its barns than its permits allow.
These permit holders are among scores granted relief as state pollution regulators ease up on environmental safeguards during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) also said no to requests from mining companies and petrochemical refineries.
So far, the MPCA has granted nearly 430 emergency requests to ease or delay compliance, and rejected seven, according to data the MPCA is posting on its website for the purpose of transparency.
The MPCA nixed a request from PolyMet Mining Corp. to defer monitoring surface water and groundwater at the leaking tailings basin on the Iron Range where it wants to build the state’s first copper-nickel mine, as well as a separate request to defer monitoring of nearby wetlands.
Also denied were requests from Mesabi Metallics Co., Randy’s Sanitation Inc., St. Paul Park Refining Co., Savannah Meadows Wastewater Treatment Plant and Western Refining Terminals LLC.
The data suggests the case-by-case program has not become a pollution free-for-all. The waivers represent a small fraction of the 84,000 facilities the agency permits.
MPCA Assistant Commissioner Katrina Kessler said that to get approval, compliance problems had to be related to the pandemic and a waiver couldn’t result in impacts to human health or the environment. All the temporary allowances have end dates.
“Generally, the majority of the requests have been administrative in nature: a delay in reporting, a delay in submitting monitoring results or a delay in submitting annual reports,” Kessler said in an interview. They don’t involve raising limits on pollutant discharges, for example.
The MPCA first announced its emergency compliance “flexibility” policy in late March, shortly after Gov. Tim Walz issued the statewide stay-at-home order. The move paralleled the sweeping changes announced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — a move that provoked outrage among national environmental groups that have since sued the federal agency.
Minnesota, responsible for enforcing federal environmental laws in the state, took a more targeted approach. It requires permit holders to write in specific requests.
JT Haines, a spokesman for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, said the group hasn’t monitored requests, but it reviewed the criteria the MPCA planned to use to evaluate applications. They seemed “reasonable,” he said.
Other states, including Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan, have taken similar steps.
The single largest share of approved requests — 43% of the statewide total — came from Speedway.
The chain of gas and convenience stores, formerly known as SuperAmerica and now owned by Ohio-based Marathon Petroleum, was granted 181 requests to allow its stations to dispense fuel during closed hours without employees present. That was “an alternative to temporarily closing locations entirely,” said company spokeswoman Marna Berlekamp.
For the University of Minnesota, the MPCA granted 72 requests to ease hazardous waste requirements at nearly three dozen research stations, medical facilities, labs and other facilities.
Adam Krajicek, the U’s environmental protection manager, said the waivers allowed U staff to delay the weekly inspections of stored hazardous waste they’re supposed to conduct — making sure a container hasn’t leaked or spilled and is accurately labeled, for example — until the social isolation policy lifts and they are back up and running. It was also allowed to store the waste for a longer period.
“Essentially all of our labs are empty,” Krajicek said.
He said the facilities generate relatively small amounts of hazardous waste and the types vary by site. They include such things as oil-based paint, cleaning solvents, heavy metals such as arsenic and lead, and lithium batteries.
“This is new territory for everyone,” Krajicek said. “Overall, I think it will help the regulated community demonstrate their reason for not complying during this time.”
Only a handful of livestock farms sought relief from feedlot regulations. One, Schwartz Farms Inc., a major hog operation in Sleepy Eye, received five waivers to house extra pigs in its barns. The company declined to answer questions, but the meat industry has been in upheaval, with some livestock farmers forced to euthanize animals.
The shutdown has also disrupted routines for waste haulers.
Waste Management Inc. was allowed to dump some organic waste in landfills instead of trucking it to special composting facilities. Company spokesman Julie Ketchum said that there are only two organics composting facilities in the Twin Cities metro area. For a short time it looked like both might close over concerns workers had about exposure to the coronavirus.
In the end, Waste Management had to landfill organic materials for only a brief period, affecting just two customers, she said.
Carver County, like many other counties, took advantage of the emergency program to buy an extra month to complete its annual solid waste report. Brad Hanzel, interim manager of the county’s Department of Environmental Services, said the county relies on garbage haulers and others to provide tonnages and other data.
“It’s tough to get that information with everyone dealing with coronavirus,” Hanzel said.