New Republican strategy: redesign government for the benefit of polluters

Two bills that would allow either the Minnesota House or the Senate to have veto power over new rules relating to water standards have passed the Environment and Natural Resources Committee and, according to Chair Denny McNamara, will pass the full House.  I believe him.

Another bill that would give the same veto power, but this time over all rules—from banking to drinking water, passed the Government Operations Committee and appears to be on track for passage by the full House.

Minnesota has a well-established system for making the complex data/science based standards for how much of a pollutant can be in our waters. The legislature has set the general policy, the executive branch implements it with ample public input and a full hearing before an administrative law judge if necessary. The courts are there to settle disputes if disputes remain. Three equal branches of government all doing the job they are supposed to do. Testifying in opposition to the proposed legislation, the League of  Women Voter’s  Gretchen Sabel praised the current system and called it orderly and transparent.

Now House Republicans want final approval –and veto power–over any standard.  For some the reaction is, why not, legislators can understand science. Consider that 97% of scientists have come to a consensus that global warming is real and that the impact will be enormous. Republicans in the Minnesota House are pretending that global warming is not an issue as they work to dismantle the Renewable Energy Act of 2007 and otherwise undermine solar energy.

During the hearing on HF 616 and 617, the argument focused on two issues: (1) the cost burden to small cities to implement phosphorus rules pertaining to their waste water treatment systems and (2) Moorhead’s not wanting to upgrade its system until North Dakota upgrades theirs.

In the short amount of time given to him, Trevor Russell of Friends of the Mississippi did a nice job testifying in support of the current system. He pointed out that there is good state financial support for small cities and if it is not good enough, that would be relative easy to fix. In other words, he argued the solution does not fit the problem.  You can hear his testimony here.

There is no legislator who is more fun to hear than Rep. John Persell. You can hear him say that Bemidji upgraded it wastewater treatment system 30 years ago and that it is just Bull Hockey that Moorhead can’t do the same. His remarks are preceded by strong comments from Rep. Cornish.

Rebecca Flood, Assistant Commissioner for Water at the PCA, pointed out that the water standards that would be governed by the proposed legislation and the permits for wastewater treatment systems are two different things. We didn’t hear her full explanation because Chair Denny McNamara cut her off. A standard is the water quality goal for a particular water body. A permit is granted to a specific facility and can include flexible timelines, financial assistance and variances. You can hear Rep. McNamara here.

Inquiring minds will want to know, if the problem and solution don’t fit, why this solution.

In an article entitled “ALEC’s Latest Trojan Horse: The Attack on Standards and Safeguards Moves to the States,” the Center for Effective Government looks at so-called reforms designed to weaken environmental, food, consumer and worker safety policies. It says the two policy changes that the anti-regulatory interests support are “1) increasing the power of a politicized centralized review body with the authority to second-guess the standards proposed by scientists and substantive experts; and 2) requiring new, more extensive economic analyses of the cost of the new standards.” There could not be a better description of HF 616 and 617.

ALEC is the American Legislative Exchange Council, a business backed group that promotes free-market, limited-government policies. A New York Times article, April 21, 2012, titled “Conservative Nonprofit Acts as a Stealth Business Lobbyist,” gives a good description.

When Tony Kwilis from the Chamber of Commerce testified in support of HF  1216, the bill giving house or Senate veto over any rule, the only specific issues he cited were the three water quality standards—sulfates, nitrates, and phosphorous—that he said would have a big economic impact on the business community.  It is telling that the HF 1216 that he was promoting only wants significant costs considered like those that might have to be paid by a business. Benefits to the water and those who use it are not considered in the bill. Neither are small costs like those for a new well or an alternative source of water for a private well owner whose water is contaminated with nitrates through no fault of his or her own. They are not considered costs under HF 1216.

Wild rice–protect it now or wait…

With the introduction of HF 1000, Rep. Carly Melin, a DFLer from Hibbing, surfaced the long simmering tension between mining groups and waste water treatment plant operators on one side and environmental groups and tribal communities on the other side. Basically HF 1000 says that the Pollution Control Agency cannot apply its sulfate standard designed to protect wild rice until it adopts rules that establish criteria for designating waters subject to a wild rice water quality standard. Adopting these rules would be a lengthy process, two years would be a minimum.

The buzz in the halls after the hearing was all about the powerful testimony of Winona LaDuke. The buzz was about the respect or lack of respect shown to LaDuke. For those open to thinking in new ways, she offered a lot. You can hear her testimony here.  It is about 7 minutes.

The bill has been temporarily set aside. PCA will release a study on wild rice and a list of waters in late March. Expect a lot more public conversation then and know that much more will likely be going on out of public view up until the March release. Marshall Helmberger, publisher of the Timberjay newspapers in Tower, Minnesota, offers a perspective in a StarTribune commentary: “Iron Range: Why profits over people? Northern Minnesota legislators are doing the bidding of Mining companies now.”

Bluestem Prairie has been digging again and found the dirt on coal in Minnesota

Bluestem Prairie continues to follow the money and has been digging deeply. This time Bluestem links a new group, The Coalition for a Secure Energy Future, to its North Dakota roots and money.

Specifically, Bluestem reports that during a July 1, 2014 meeting of the North Dakota Development Commission it accepted “the Lignite Research Council recommendation to fund the grant application ‘Regional Lignite Public Affairs Plan (Coalition for a Secure Energy Future)’” and agreed to fund of up to $1,200,000. Governor Dalrymple and Attorney General Stenehjem voted aye for a motion that carried unanimously.

The Coalition for a Secure Energy Future advertises itself as an organization that has been “officially established” to get the message out that “retaining an all-of-the-above energy mix that includes coal as a regional energy resource will help keep electric rates low, jobs plentiful, and the economy robust.”

The group is co-chaired by former Senator Roger Moe and former Representative Mike Beard. Bluestem quotes a column that Moe and Beard wrote in the St. Cloud Times: “(w)e will not have a lobbying presence at the Legislature. We simply want to preserve this vital energy source that’s served our communities for decades.” That quote surprised this legislator no end. Just this last week legislators got an invitation in our work mailboxes to a reception on March 4 hosted by the Coalition for a Secure Energy Future.

Legislators will not be the only ones hearing from the Coalition. Bluestem reports they have started TV ads.

At stake are dollars and jobs that could be in either Minnesota or North Dakota. Right now Minnesota spends between $400 and $600 million per year on electricity imported from other states. This figure does not include international imports like hydro-power from Manitoba.

More to come later.

Minnesota’s drinking water: under stress, again

Drinking water has been under stress in parts of Minnesota for decades. Discussing it in the legislature has met with fierce resistance. The mere raising of the issue of nitrogen in ground water, the drinking water source for about 75% of Minnesotans, could be enough to label the speaker as “anti-agriculture.” Common wisdom held that, since federal law exempted agriculture from the Clean Water Act, nothing could be done anyway so it was not worth the trouble of bringing up the drinking water issue.

In the last several years things have started to change. In June 2013 the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency published “Nitrogen in Minnesota Surface Waters, Conditions, trends, sources, and reductions.” The report is long and full of data including the estimated yearly sources of nitrogen to surface waters (page 9). Not surprisingly, 72% comes from cropland. What was very surprising is that 30% is from cropland groundwater. Of the remainder, 37% is from cropland tile drainage and 5% from cropland runoff. To the extent that had been discussions about nitrogen, they were centered mainly around the harm to fish and other aquatic life or the hypoxia zone in the Gulf of Mexico. With the new report, the discussion about farm chemicals contaminating a neighbor’s drinking water well became harder to avoid. Add to that is the fact that nitrogen levels in our waters are increasing.

At the request of our Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee last year, the DNR listed the “Hydrogeologic Areas of Concern.” The list which included the areas where the water supply is limited, is longer than anybody had expected.

One of the biggest changes in the last two years was the realization that, while federal law does exempt agriculture from the federal Clean Water Act, Minnesota’s groundwater protection act of 1989 is strong. Under the Minnesota act, our Pollution Control Agency and Departments of Health, Agriculture, and Natural Resources each have specific responsibilities to protect drinking water sources.

Just as White Bear Lake became the “poster child” for low lake levels because of overuse of ground water, the Des Moines Water Works appears to be on track to be the “poster child” for how to deal with contaminated drinking water sources; the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers are severely contaminated with nitrogen. The StarTribune’s Maya Rao reports that Iowa’s largest water works is threatening to sue three rural counties for allowing drinking water to be contaminated by farm chemicals. Rao quotes Des Moines Water Works officials who say they spend as much as $7,000 a day on a special treatment to remove nitrates from drinking water and their ratepayers are ”tired of paying for other people’s pollution.” Moreover, if the problem continues, the Water Works will need to invest at least $85 million in additional equipment. Annie Snider of E & E News provides additional detail about the basis for the legal argument that the Des Moines Water Works is using; the levels of nitrates leaving the farm tile drainage networks; and the politics of challenging the agriculture industry.

Concerns about drinking water have been rising but there is a counter movement to roll back some of the protections that we do have. Elizabeth Dunbar, MPR, reports on two of the roll back bills that will be heard in the Environment and Natural Resources Committee next Thursday, February 26. Both bills, HF 616 and 617, would have water quality standards set by the legislature as part of the political process rather than by rule making, an executive branch process that must be based on science and have ample opportunity for citizen engagement and critique.

Some municipalities are objecting to implementing the new phosphorus rules for wastewater treatment systems that were designed to prevent excessive algae growth in rivers and streams. They do not want to pay the costs. But the bills go far beyond phosphorous and cover, among many other things, total suspended solids, chloride, sulfate and nitrate. Both bills fail to even acknowledge that wastewater is some other downstream municipality’s drinking water source and the bills only look at the cost to upgrade wastewater systems, not drinking water systems.

I will report again after the hearing.

Vote repeals a critical part of the Landmark 2007 Next Generation Energy Act

As expected, the Job Creation and Energy Affordability Committee passed HF 639 amending the 2007 Next Generation Energy Act.
One of the goals of the Next Generation Energy Act is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Central to that goal was a moratorium on coal fired electric energy plants. There were exceptions to the moratorium but they are not relevant to HF 639. Current law prohibits (1) construction of new coal fired plants in Minnesota, (2) importing electricity from new coal fired plants in other states, and (3) long-term agreements to purchase power from sources that would increase statewide carbon dioxide emissions. HF 639 repeals (2) and (3).
North Dakota sued Minnesota claiming that (2) and (3) violate the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. The federal district court agreed with North Dakota and the matter is now on appeal to the Eighth Circuit.
Essentially the argument made by the author, Rep. Newberger (R), the Chair, Rep. Garofalo (R), and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce’s Benjamin Gerber was that Minnesota should not spend any more money on the lawsuit. The Governor’s budget request for funding for the Attorney General was repeatedly cited. Note that the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce is supporting North Dakota in the law suit.
Bill Grant, Deputy Commissioner of Commerce, speaking in opposition to the bill, said that the appeal should go forward. The State’s interest, he said, was in not losing its ability to regulate in the area of global warming gases.
John Hottinger, representing the Sierra Club, spoke with pride about the 2007 Next Generation Energy Act and said, in effect, one judge should not be allowed to derail it. Surprisingly no other clean energy or environmental groups testified.
Rep. Garofalo said it was extremely unlikely that a new coal plant would be built but Rep. Sheldon Johnson (DFL) cited a statement from North Dakota saying that they wanted to do just that.
In his opening statement, Rep. Newberger said he was not there to discuss global warming. He repeated that theme as he stuck to the argument that the bill was just about saving money.
It is clear to me that this bill is about far more than saving some costs for legal work. The floor debate is likely to be much more interesting.

A bill to undo a critical part of the Landmark 2007 Next Generation Energy Act will be heard 2/16

HF0369 deletes two key portions of the law designed to prohibit long-term increases in emissions from electric power plants. Practically speaking, the bill partially repeals the moratorium on new coal plants.
The bill will be heard in the Job Growth and Energy Affordability Committee at 12:45 in Room 10 of the State Office Building. Expect a report here after the hearing.

February 14 StarTribune editorial: “A needed look at “pines-to-potatoes”

The StarTribune editorial board outlined the concerns raised by R. D. Offutt’s conversion of pineland forests to potato production areas and praised DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr for calling a halt to conversion and requiring an environmental assessment work sheet. The StarTribune Board called Landwehr’s action “farsighted” and, in my words, brave, since, in the StarTribune Board’s words “(w)ith the Republican House’s focus on lightening businesses’ regulatory burden, decisions like Landwehr’s likely aren’t going to be politically popular.”

The Board voiced its disappointment that other state commissioners, notably Health and Agriculture, had not “more publicly” backed Landwehr. Agriculture and Health have strong interests in–and responsibilities for–groundwater, our drinking water reserve.

From MPR: Early research links insecticide, monarch butterfly deaths

Dan Gunderson, MPR News, reports on new research by Dr. Vera Krischik, U of M entomologist. Krischik shows that the widely used neonicotinoid, Imidacloprid, has  “a very big impact on the larvae” of  a Monarch butterfly. Krischik describes the potential risk to Monarchs when neonicotinoids are used on backyard plants near milkweed, the food for Monarchs.

Clear-cutting forests for intensive potato production: the story continues

Kudos to DNR for halting R. D. Offutt from continuing to clear-cut forests in northwestern Minnesota and convert the lands to chemically intensive potato production. DNR will prepare a discretionary environmental assessment worksheet because of the threat to drinking water, surface water, fish and wildlife. R. D. Offutt, a North Dakota company, is America’s largest potato producer and French fry supplier to McDonalds.

DNR’s action closely follows Josephine Marcotty’s investigative report about the threat to the largely pristine but vulnerable Pineland Sands Aquifer from chemically intensive potato production.

Offutt supplies French fries to McDonalds, a company that advertises its “good sourcing” and sustainability. In September, McDonalds committed to halt and reverse the loss of forests around the globe when it signed the New York Declaration on Forests during the United Nations Climate Summit in Manhattan. McDonalds is well aware that its supplier Offutt is clear cutting forests in Minnesota.

On another note, Bluestem Prairie, a favorite go-to source, follows the Offutt money. Bluestem documents the $50,000 that R. D. Offutt gave to the Mn Jobs Coalition, “a state level PAC whose independent expenditures played a key role in flipping the Minnesota House of Representatives from DFL to Republican control.”