About three weeks ago I received an email from Bobby King of the Land Stewardship Project alerting me to two bills that are being proposed in the Minnesota State Legislature that would effectively lower the environmental standards for the state's largest factory farms.  House File 2659 was authored by Rep. Al Juhnke (DFL ) of  Willmar who represents District 13 in the Minnesota House of Representatives and who chairs the Agriculture, Rural Economies and Veteran Affairs Finance Division.  Senate File 2734 was authored by Sen. Steve Dille (R) of Dassel who represents District 18 in the Minnesota Senate and who is the ranking minority member on two Senate committees dealing with state agricultural policy.

Currently in Minnesota, we have higher minimum standards than those of the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that regulate discharges into our waters.  State law requires that factory farms over 1,000 animal units get a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit.  This applies to less than 4% of all feedlots in Minnesota or to what are roughly 1,100 of the largest factory farms now operating in our state.  At the federal level, EPA standards were weakened in 2008 to allow feedlots over 1,000 animal units to merely certify that they do not plan to intentionally discharge waste to public waters thus allowing them to forego the NPDES permit requirement.  This permit, by the way, is the primary tool the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) uses to force factory farms to comply with environmental regulations.  These bills propose to lower our state standards to match that of the EPA.  It goes to reason that eliminating this requirement would effectively weaken the MPCA's ability to regulate some of the states biggest polluters. 

Last year, Minnesota voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment to implement a 0.375% sales tax increase beginning July 1, 2009.  The purpose of the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment is to raise money for an outdoor heritage fund designed to protect and restore wetland, prairie and forest habitat as well as to raise money for a clean water fund to protect drinking water, groundwater and the state’s many lakes, rivers and streams.  60% of those funds are dedicated to those purposes.  A smaller percentage of the tax receipts (20%) is earmarked for arts and heritage preservation while the remainder is directed to parks and trails.

While I agree in principle that supplanting the role of the state legislature to amend the constitution by calling for a voter referendum for a tax increase is a slippery slope that should best be avoided, now that the people of Minnesota have spoken, it would be nice if our elected officials would pay heed to our voices rather than succumb to the pressure of agribusiness lobbyists by proposing legislation that is designed to weaken state environmental standards for clean water. It seems to me that creating a situation that would make it easier for millions upon millions of gallons of liquid manure to be discharged into our waters runs counter to the wishes of most Minnesotans and defeats the purpose of funding clean water initiatives.  If signed into law, these bills could help flush those tax dollars down the toilet.  Literally.



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