July 25, 2024

A host of Minnesota environmental groups are calling out state agencies tasked with protecting public health and natural resources, alleging that regulators consistently cater to industrial interests. 

People Not Polluters, a 16-member coalition, issued a June 11 declaration taking on Minnesota agencies. Citing examples from the Line 3 oil pipeline in northern Minnesota, to agriculture feedlots in the southeast and industrial sites like Smith Foundry in Minneapolis, People Not Polluters makes the case that Governor Tim Walz’s administration favors industry over the public. 

“We see a pattern of polluting industries having undue influence over state agencies that are charged with protecting human health and the environment,” said Margaret Levin, state director of the Sierra Club’s North Star Chapter. 

The Sierra Club joined groups including the Minnesota Environmental Justice Table, the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute, Friends of the Boundary Waters, Climate Generation and WaterLegacy in a broad coalition of environmental advocacy organizations tracking issues ranging from urban pollution to rural well water quality. 

The coalition identified 12 cases where they feel state agencies failed the public and the environment. Their campaign is calling out the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), and the agriculture, health and natural resources departments. 

Walz declined an interview about the report, and issued a written statement via a spokesperson expressing confidence in state agencies. 

“We’re proud of Minnesota’s state agencies who are constantly working to stop polluters and keep Minnesotans safe. The state has a strong record of holding polluters accountable and working with the community and the legislature to ensure health and our natural resources are protected,” the statement said. 

A pattern of polluter capture 

Dawn Goodwin grew up on the White Earth Reservation in northwest Minnesota, where she swam in lakes and streams and played in the woods. But it wasn’t until 2011 that the Anishinabe woman got involved in the effort to limit the impact of climate change. 

Goodwin became part of the resistance movement against the Line 3 oil pipeline project, which transports crude oil from Canada through Minnesota to Lake Superior. She thought that with people from across the state and globe on their side, and hosts of scientific experts testifying against the pipeline, the movement would win. But Enbridge, the large Canadian corporation behind Line 3, kept advancing in its permit processes with the MPCA and Department of Natural Resources (DNR). 

“We waited for the MPCA to do the right thing,” Goodwin said. 

In November 2020, the MPCA and DNR approved the permit, allowing Enbridge to advance its project to reconstruct the oil pipeline. 

The years Goodwin spent fighting the pipeline unveiled the process of polluter capture. Polluter capture is when private industry has disproportionate access to and influence over regulatory decision making processes. The business interests behind Enbridge were too great, and to Goodwin, seemed to have an undue amount of influence with the state. 

“It’s become economy over environment,’” she said.

Line 3 is just one area where the coalition sees polluter capture. The group points to how the DNR allowed logging companies to fell trees in Wildlife Management Areas, which drew criticism from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Wildlife Management Areas are tracts of habitat the state sets aside to allow animals to flourish that can also be used for hunting, fishing and logging. 

“It feels like more of a business model, where the agencies treat businesses and industries like customers,” Levin said.  

The coalition met with Walz’s staff multiple times, but was never granted a sit-down meeting with the governor, Levin said. The coalition requested an executive order from Walz that would encourage more accountability and transparency from regulatory agencies. 

Many in the coalition have praised Walz, a Democrat, during his time in office, and environmental groups are typically seen as politically aligned with his party. Democrats also have a majority in the Minnesota House and Senate. But the problems they perceive with state agencies moved the groups to take their mission to heart, according to Levin.  

“It’s possible our voices are needed even more because we have one party in leadership,” she said.

The coalition says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s unannounced inspection of Smith Foundry in May 2023 is an example of when federal agencies have had to step up to address a business that residents have complained about for years. The EPA found that the foundry in south Minneapolis violated the federal Clean Air Act for years, and is requiring it to halt its metal melting and casting operations by next June. The company was also fined $80,000 for excessive pollution and other permit violations. 

Leaders of Minnesota state agencies are largely technocrats charged with keeping controversy to a minimum, said longtime Minnesota environmental advocate Don Arnosti. The agencies are staffed with good people who believe in protecting the environment, he believes, but it’s baked into the managerial level to defer to business interests. 

“Until it hits the press, until the community get’s upset, it’s not an issue,” Arnosti said.  

Sahan Journal was the first to report Smith Foundry’s violations, prompting public protests outside the foundry demanding that the state shut it down. The state held several public meetings and conducted its own inspection of the foundry shortly after the story was published last November. 

Calls for change

People Not Polluters is calling on Minnesota legislators to hold state agencies accountable. That could come in the form of new laws, or requests for the Office of the Legislature Auditor to review the agencies’ performances. 

Water Gremlin, a lead battery terminal manufacturer in White Bear Lake, emitted dangerous chemicals for 17 years before the MPCA took action in 2019. The company was using high levels of trichloroethylene (TCE), which lawmakers would ban in 2020. The Office of the Legislative Auditor released a report on Water Gremlin in 2021 that was critical of the MPCA, citing its failures to properly regulate the facility and issue permits that would effectively limit pollution. 

A new law passed in 2023 requires the MPCA to consider the cumulative impact of all pollution when issuing or renewing permits in areas that have been designated as environmental justice areas, which are more vulnerable neighborhoods based on their racial demographics and income rates. But the law was whittled down. The original bill was supposed to apply statewide, but the final version only covers the Twin Cities metro area, Duluth and Rochester, and is still being hammered out in a multi-year rulemaking process. 

The coalition also wants state agencies to be more transparent in maintaining public records of emails and other messages that discuss permits and enforcement. Representative Kristi Pursell, DFL-Northfield, proposed a law this year that would have required state agencies to respond to data practice requests from the public and media within 30 days, and to keep most digital records for more than 20 years. The bill was introduced late in the session and did not pass, but Pursell is optimistic that the discussion will continue next year. 

Enshrining more transparency and accountability is important, Pursell said. There are issues baked into the function of several state agencies that issue permits and regulate permit holders, she said, citing insights she gained in her previous work for a water quality nonprofit. 

“It’s clear to me that there is an inherent conflict of interest in the way our agencies are set up,” Pursell said. 

The coalition worked to make its case to state agencies and Walz before going public with its campaign. In January, commissioners from the MPCA and the agriculture, health and natural resources departments wrote a response letter to the group. 

“While we disagree with several of the characterizations in your letter, we recognize and appreciate that these issues are challenging and require the full attention of our agencies to ensure we protect and improve the environment and human health,” the letter read.


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