Going Backwards: Minnesota’s new environment laws.

Republicans made numerous proposals to take rights from citizens and give them to polluters. Some proposals failed, but of the ones that are now law, two stand out.

Until the law changed, Minnesotans had the right to raise questions about a Department of Natural Resources permit to mine decision by asking for a contested case hearing. There are obvious issues at stake like potential water pollution, plans to remediate the site, and financial assurance to protect taxpayers from cleaning up any mess left when the mines close.

Now only adjacent property owners will have the right to a contested case hearing. All other Minnesotans are now excluded even ones who could be directly harmed–for example, water pollution affecting someone’s property that was not adjacent to the mine or Minnesota taxpayers paying the bill for clean up. Who would have guessed that Minnesota would return to colonial times when only property owners had rights.

The other new law says that cities that upgrade their waste water treatment systems to comply with new or modified effluent limits do not have to upgrade again for another 16 years even if new health based standards are adopted.

There are 203 wastewater treatment systems in the upper Mississippi basin, the drinking water source for over a million Minnesotans including those of us in Minneapolis.

In addition, the PCA’s new study of pharmaceuticals and other contaminants shows that the Crow River, which enters the Mississippi about 20 miles upstream from our drinking water intakes, is a hot spot for those contaminants. The Minnesota Department of Health’s testing of source water is very limited so there is no data to indicate concentrations of pharmaceuticals and other contaminants north of our drinking water intakes. One would hope that within the next 16 years PCA will want to require waste water systems to do a better job eliminating these contaminants.

It should go without saying that Minnesota law should not preclude wastewater treatment upgrades to meet health standards. It is simply unsafe and unfair to ask those who drink the water to ignore evolving drinking waster wastewater standards or clean up the contaminants that others create. Senators and House members who represent the communities that drink Mississippi River water wrote a letter to the Governor with that message but the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency decided to go along with the 16 year free pass that is now law.

Inquiring minds will be asking, just who is the Pollution Control Agency protecting?

Going backwards. Minnesota’s new energy laws.

This Republican energy bill that has been signed by the Governor and is now law harkens back to 1986 when President Reagan gutted renewable energy research and removed solar panels from White House roof. It would be hard to be more backward.

The bill sabotages our new Minnesota solar energy industry and with it good paying solar energy jobs. This bill does more than that but I will start with solar.

The Republican energy bill gets rid of the Made in Minnesota program that launched the Minnesota solar industry and 495 solar industry jobs. The bill also gets rid of the Renewable Development Fund that was created in the mid 1990s as part of the Prairie Island settlement between Xcel, the State, and the Prairie Island community. The settlement was designed to promote renewable energy and that is exactly what it has done.

Rather than spending the RDF dollars on promoting renewable energy, this Republican bill puts dollars in a newly created fund with different priorities.

Earmarks eat up much of the money. One earmark says that if Xcel terminates its contract with the poultry litter plant in Benson, or buys it out, then $20,000,000 of the former RDF dollars will be given to the city of Benson for economic development. Legislators have been told that Benson would use this money to help build a cheese factory. Similarly another earmark of $34,000,000 can be used for a gas plant in northern Minnesota.

Minnesotans spend billions (with a b) of dollars per year on electricity imported from other states and Canada. At stake in this Republican energy bill are dollars and jobs that could be created in Minnesota, or dollars that we will continue to send to other states, and jobs that we continue to support in other states.To the extent Minnesotans can create electric energy from our abundant sun and wind, more dollars stay in Minnesota and circulate in Minnesota. That would be good for Minnesota’s economy, but not good for the fossil fuel industry that is dependent on Minnesota dollars leaving Minnesota.

It is well known that the Koch brothers and their fossil fuel industry friends continue to undermine renewable energy. Roof top solar, in particular, terrifies them. Their worry, of course, is that solar will become as cheap or cheaper than wind energy which is already out competing their fossil fuel assets. If wind and solar out compete fossil fuels, then fossil fuel assets become less valuable so it is not surprising that attacks on solar are happening in many states besides ours

The Koch brothers and their friends were probably very disappointed when Governor Dayton vetoed HF 234. It allowed coops to settle complaints from customers and took away a customer’s ability to complain to the Public Utilities Commission. It did provide for mediation, but a coop has the final say.

Lo and behold, the bill reappeared in the final omnibus bill that was sent to the Governor. It is now law.

At issue for the coops were complaints to the PUC that the new fees that they were imposing for rooftop solar and small wind were too high and unreasonable. The PUC opened an investigation specifically asking the question: do the fees meet the requirements set in law or are the fees designed to capture lost revenues or are the fees deigned so that residential and small farm solar or wind no longer make economic sense?

Mediation is voluntary and if it doesn’t work, the customer who thought the coop was charging more than the law allowed wouldn’t be able to appeal to the PUC but only to the coop that set the fee in the first place.

A coop becomes a judge of itself. Worse, since the coop is now taking over the role of the PUC, it would be able to say that an appeal was made in bad faith or is frivolous and then the coop could collect the coop’s legal expenses. What customer would appeal under those circumstances? It would be risky.

While the investigation of the methodology used by coops to impose new fees will go forward at the PUC, that, by no means, insures that the coop will apply a new methodology correctly. So, coop customers have only two recourses: mediation with the coop as final decision maker or go to district court, a very expensive option.

Metro residents can choose to put solar on their roof without big and possibly changing fees. With HF 234, many in rural Minnesota will not have that same opportunity.

Sabotaging solar is not all that is wrong with this bill.

The bill takes away rights and opportunities for outstate citizens for cutting energy waste and saving money by eliminating CIP for small munis and coops. The conservation improvement program would no longer be required for smaller coops (12) and munis (38) and would eliminate efficient lighting, on-bill repayment and low-income programs for customers. Republicans promised more opportunities and here is another example of taking away opportunities for and estimated 40,000 to 62,000 customers.

Big oil and coal have just gotta love the Republican energy bill. They are dependent on dollars leaving this state and creating jobs and wealth in other states

But this bill, now new law, is not good for Minnesota or Minnesotans.

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Going backwards: the Clean Water Legacy provisions that are now law.

In my April 20th post, “Why did House Republicans take Clean Water Legacy money from rural MN communities that don’t have protection plans for their drinking water wells?” I sounded a hopeful note. Rep. Gunther said he wanted to restore Clean Water Legacy money that would be used to protect drinking water.

But that is not what happened.

The dollars for drinking water in the Legacy bill don’t come close to helping the communities that need money to protect their drinking water wells. Mainly these are outstate Minnesota communities that Republicans promised to help. There was no money to help protect the Mississippi, the drinking water source for over a million Minnesotans. In fact, protections for the Mississippi were weakened.

The Department of Health was given enough money to help 20 communities figure out how to protect their drinking water wells.

But there are 380 communities that don’t yet have source water protection plans. (170 vulnerable, 210 non-vulnerable). At the rate of providing funding for 20 per biennium, the number that is in the Legacy bill, community protection plans won’t get done until 2056.

Once a community figures it out what it needs to do to protect its drinking water then there is the challenge of actually protecting drinking water.

There are 960 community public drinking water systems in Minnesota: about 500 have source water protection plans. Those communities and the Department of Health have figured out that 407,000 acres surrounding community wells are highly vulnerable to contamination. But at this point, only 9,900 acres are protected by easements. 5,000 acres could be protect with new CREP money so that means 392,100 acres still need to be protected–and remember these are only the highly vulnerable acres in communities that currently have plans.

If you add up all the money provided for drinking water in the Legacy bill and Health doesn’t spend anything on other essentials, 1,100 additional acres could be protected in the next biennium.

At this rate it would take 708 years to protect the rest of the highly vulnerable acres in communities that currently have plans.

Minnesota is approaching spending a billion dollars of clean water money.

And this is where we are with drinking water. 708 years to go. And that isn’t counting protecting the Mississippi or dealing with thousands of private drinking water wells that have been contaminated through no fault of the owner.