Minnesota is set to ban "forever chemicals" in food packaging such as burger wrappers and takeout containers, joining a handful of other states with such bans on the harmful pollutants.
The ban on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, called PFAS, is part of the long-awaited environment finance bill legislators are racing to pass to avoid a government shutdown on July 1. The Senate passed the bill 49-16 Tuesday evening, and it now heads to the House for a vote.
The enormous reach of the environment deal, largely negotiated by Senate Republican and House DFL leaders behind closed doors, stretches from the Northwoods to farm fields to microplastic bits in the water.
"We've come up with a great bill," said Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner Laura Bishop, addressing the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday.
Bishop said she supported a last-minute revision to clarify that the PFAS ban affects the chemicals "intentionally added" in the packaging, not PFAS that may have unintentionally landed on packaging from nonstick spray used on manufacturing equipment, for example.
The environment bill frees up more than $130 million in spending by the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund for projects such as combating toxic algae blooms that kill pet dogs and fighting off invasive carp.
The deal would also ensure that state parks remain open, help the Minnesota Zoo recover losses from the pandemic and prevent the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) from shutting down due to lack of funding.
The compromise bill carries wins and losses for both environmentalists and industries. It authorizes more than $2.5 million to address PFAS pollution, including reducing the sources of the chemicals that end up at wastewater treatment plants and solid waste facilities. It even creates a new state forest — the Riverlands State Forest on 22,596 acres in Carlton and St. Louis counties. It is Minnesota's 60th state forest, the DNR said.
It also prohibits shipping Minnesota water more than 50 miles from the pump, a move aimed at preventing another "Water Train." In that failed 2019 episode, a company sought to drill new wells in Dakota County and ship the water by rail to the Southwest.
But it also prohibits state regulators from restricting the application of manure to farm fields in October — a provision that could land the state in the cross hairs of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And it allows a commercial turtle harvest to continue.
Neither side seemed fully satisfied with the negotiated environment bill.
"It's a status quo bill," said Rep. Rick Hansen, a South St. Paul Democrat and lead House negotiator.
The big victories, Hansen said, were getting beyond the "hostage taking" by Republicans over the clean cars standards and restoring the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund spending.
Senate Republicans had initially refused to negotiate unless the Walz administration stopped the state's proposed clean cars emissions standards. The rule, awaiting Gov. Tim Walz's signoff, will require automakers to deliver more electric vehicles to the state for sale. Senate GOP leaders dropped that demand.
In a strange compromise, there will be no immediate policy changes for how the state regulates private deer farms, which have caused outbreaks of the fatal chronic wasting disease that threatens the state's wild deer herd.
The state's Board of Animal Health governs deer farms, but the Minnesota Legislative Auditor's Office found in 2018 that the board was too cozy with the farms and lax on regulations. Deer hunters and other advocates asked for the DNR to take control. Instead, legislators have proposed giving both the DNR and Board of Animal Control "concurrent authority to regulate" deer farms.
The deal would give the DNR the authority to inspect deer farms, but it's unclear how the two agencies will work together. The DNR declined to comment to the Star Tribune on the proposal before it becomes law, but DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen told lawmakers Tuesday that the two agencies would need to work together.
Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, said he was "super glad" the funding was restored to the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund. But the bill falls short of what Minnesota needs to protect its natural resources, he said.
"For us, it really fails to step up to the challenges of the times," Morse said. "It reflects the reality of our current legislature."
Researchers and project managers were cautiously relieved that money from the trust fund seemed close to freeing up after nearly two years of delays.
The roadblock threatened to permanently shutter a number of projects, including research into toxic algae blooms and into how wolves behave and survive during summer months.
"I just can't believe it — it's been such a roller coaster," said Thomas Gable, project lead of the Voyageur's Wolf Project. "Everybody wins when this money is given out. ... Who doesn't want to see great environmental projects?"
Tensions erupted in Tuesday's House Ways and Means Committee meeting before a vote to send the bill to the floor, as frazzled lawmakers let loose with their frustrations over negotiating via Zoom instead of in person.
Hansen told committee members that negotiations were complicated when Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, a Republican from Alexandria leading the Senate negotiations, was in Alaska part of the time.
In a statement to the Star Tribune, Ingebrigtsen said he was in Alaska from June 12-19 on a mission trip with his church to help with "some construction needs."
Ingebrigtsen said he was "able to stay connected and work remotely on the environment bill."
Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683
Greg Stanley • 612-673-4482