Blog from Scott Strand, Executive Director


Read Scott's thoughts on important environmental issues in Minnesota, the United States, and worldwide.

Air Quality and Environmental Justice

Important new study out of the U of M on racial disparities nationwide in levels of air pollution.  This study's focus is apparently on nitrogen dioxide, but I suspect similar results would emerge if the study included air pollutants like ground-level ozone and fine particulates, or if it used other indicators of socioeconomic status in addition to race.  To the Administration's credit, there is a growing focus in the agencies on pollution disparities and environmental justice, but there is obviously a lot of work to be done.

Minnesota groundwater shortage

Minnesota has operated on the assumption that its clean water supplies are virtually unlimited.  Time to get over that.  Minnesota is now facing water shortages in several areas, our current system of water appropriation permits is not up to the challenge, and major reforms are going to be critical.  This will be extremely difficult, because some requests to pump water are going to have to be denied, and the price of water is almost certainly going to have to rise.  Check out MPR's series on the issues; Also take a look at Martin Moylan's report today on entrepreneurs getting ready to take on part of this challenge.

Cost of carbon emissions

Interesting article in Nature this past week on calculating the social cost of carbon emissions, and using those numbers to make policy and business decisions.  The article concludes that the usual numbers--$35-40/ton--are too low because they fail to take many factors into account.   MCEA petitioned the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) last winter to update Minnesota's social cost figures for carbon and other major air pollutants.  The PUC was reluctant, but finally agreed with MCEA's position and now we are in the early stages of that process.  Just to give some perspective, Minnesota's current social cost figures for carbon are $0.30 - $3/ton, set back in the 1990's when our understanding of the costs of greenhouse gas emissions was not what it is today.

PolyMet: Where do we go from here?

GUEST BLOG by Kathryn Hoffman, Staff Attorney

The public comment period on the PolyMet Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (SDEIS) ended on March 13.  MCEA worked with six experts in the fields of mine engineering, hydrology, geochemistry, barrier and containment strategies, and wetlands. These comments were, in many ways, the culmination of three and a half years of work for me, but I was standing on the shoulders of giants, as many previous (and current) MCEA staffers have also put enormous work into this project.

After a few weeks of decompressing, I am now returning to the PolyMet project. What are the next steps for this project?

Sometime in mid-2015 to 2016, the agencies will most likely issue a Final EIS. The Final EIS will have a 30-day public comment period, which is another opportunity for MCEA members to weigh in on this project.  After that comment period, the co-lead agencies – Department of Natural Resources, the US Forest Service, and the Army Corps of Engineers – will all need to make their own determination about the adequacy of the EIS.

But before a Final EIS may be issued, the agencies will need to categorize, read, and respond to all public comments. By some reports, the PolyMet SDEIS received nearly 60,000 public comments. To put this in perspective, the project that received the second-most comments in DNR history (which, not coincidentally, was the first PolyMet draft EIS) garnered 3800 comments. So the public participation during this public comment period is absolutely unprecedented, and the task of responding to all comments herculean.

When the co-lead agencies respond to the comments, they will need to make changes to the Final EIS. MCEA, the tribal governments, EPA and others have consistently raised concerns about this project that will require additional work to address. Most notably, the water quality model, which attempts to describe the amount of water, as well as water pollution, moving through the mine site to nearby lakes, rivers and wetlands, may well need to be redone. Re-running the water model is not simply a matter of changing the inputs and hitting “enter” – it requires calibrating the model and changing other variables to obtain results that make sense.  This process alone could take six months to a year.

The agencies’ willingness to improve this analysis in the EIS, and the project itself, depends upon the continued engagement of MCEA and other organizations, as well as the US EPA.

Politics and the Environment

The New Yorker recently had a disturbing article about the inability of West Virginia's department of environmental protection to address environmental problems in the state, including the recent chemical spill that contaminated, or contaminates, the drinking water in Charleston. The article focuses on the political domination of the coal industry, even though the industry now employs only 3% of West Virginia's workforce. Much of the description sounds eerily familiar--the "customer" is the permit applicant, we "work with" violators instead of enforcing the law. Minnesota, at times, is not so different. Industries like agriculture, timber, and mining have disproportionate political influence in this state, and there is always considerable political pressure on the environmental enforcement agencies to relax standards or back off on violators, lest the state lose the perception of being business-friendly. For an example, check out Josephine Marcotty's front-page article in yesterday's Star Tribune, describing how regulators were forced to back down on releasing a study confirming the current sulfate water quality standard.

Biomass--not the answer

Report out from Partnership for Public Integrity showing that burning wood to produce electricity is even worse than burning coal.  With Minnesota's timber industry struggling, there will be considerable pressure to go to wood-burning to produce energy.  We can expect the Forest Products Association to be very active in the rebooted climate change initiative from the Environmental Quality Board (EQB).   Always open to new technology arguments, but right now, a serious move to "biomass" for electricity generation would likely be a serious mistake.

Latest IPCC report--most dire warning yet

The consensus-driven International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) just released another report on the impacts of global warming.

"Waters of the United States"

The authority of the federal government, notably the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to set and enforce water quality and wetland standards is limited to so-called "waters of the United States."  For a long time, many environmental lawyers assumed that that extended to the full constitutional limit of federal authority under the Commerce Clause, i.e. pretty darn far, but a series of US Supreme Court and federal appeals court decisions over the past ten to fifteen years placed a number of ambiguous limits on the Clean Water Act's reach.  That in turn has forced the agencies to undertake complicated "jurisdictional determinations" when it is not clear whether, say, a wetland has a "significant nexus" to surface waters like lakes and rivers.

Former Rep. James Oberstar from Minnesota's Eighth Congressional District tried to reconfirm Congress's original intent that "waters of the United States" be read broadly with the Clean Water Restoration Act, but was never able to get it passed.  That bill also stirred up a lot of political controversy, which has now shifted to the executive branch since there is today no possibility of Congressional action.

Today, the EPA released new rules defining "waters of the United States," which should bring greater clarity to this issue.  MCEA has not reviewed the new rules in detail yet, but the fusillade of brickbats today  from western governors and industrial lobbies indicates that EPA is probably on the right track.  We can expect some kind of attack from the U.S. House majority as well, a vigorous comment period, and no doubt court challenges.

Here is a link to EPA's press release, which in turn links to more extensive information about the new proposed rule.

Not ready for "dilbit" spills in Great Lakes

Important article from Wisconsin Watch on our lack of preparation for a "dilbit" (diluted bitumen) or tar sands oil spill on the Great Lakes.  There has been considerable focus on pipeline spills on Enbridge's pipeline routes through Minnesota, but less on shipping that same tar sand oil across Lake Superior or through the other Great Lakes once it reaches the terminal in Superior, Wisconsin.

RIP Professor Sax

Professor Joseph Sax, who really pioneered modern environmental law back in the 1960's and 1970's, recently passed away at his home in San Francisco.  His law review article, "The Public Trust Doctrine in Natural Resources Law:  Effective Judicial Intervention," is probably the most influential single article in the history of environmental law.  Sax's "public trust" theory is the basis for Minnesota's Environmental Rights Act (MERA), which gives all Minnesota citizens the right to sue to stop the pollution, impairment, or destruction of natural resources.  More recently, it was the basis for all of the common-law litigation against the electric power industry over carbon emissions. Here's the obit from the New York Times.

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