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Viewpoint: Bring back Minnesota’s environmental conscience

I’ve not added anything to this blog for quite a while. I got caught up in facebook. I’m going to have another shot at it, starting with this “Earth Week” piece that ran in the Red Wing Republican Eagle (Subheads and a few edits were done by the paper.)

“The basic equation of environmental politics is simple: Special interests — developers, chemical manufacturers, oil, and gas interests, auto makers, utilities — seek to weaken environmental laws. Informed citizens tend to want them strengthened. It’s obvious which is the strongest voice most of the time.”

Written By: Alan Muller, Red Wing, MN |  Published May 9th 2020 in the Red Wing Republican-Eagle https://www.rivertowns.net/opinion/letters/6485342-Viewpoint-Bring-back-Minnesota%E2%80%99s-environmental-conscience?fbclid=IwAR3OSVnYbiVusDPgQVgr6gtIacXtFX9JmuZy2gh8LLMk7Z-Gly5rS3VWhi4

The first Earth Day was in 1970. One of the key national voices for the environment was Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. Subsequently, Minnesota passed bedrock legislation such as the Minnesota Environmental Policy Act (1970) and the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act (1971).

During the 13 years I’ve been in Minnesota, every session of the Legislature seems to leave our environmental laws weakened, moving us backwards from a high point in the 1970s. As just one shameful example, in 2015 the “Citizens’ Board” of the Pollution Control Agency called for environmental review of a big feedlot project. The Legislature responded by abolishing the Citizens Board.

How has this happened? Minnesota once had two responsible political parties willing to work together in the public interest. Since then, the Republicans have largely devolved into a party of injustice, pollution, and disease. The DFL, for lack of credible competition, has become passive and drifted to the political right.

The Legislature itself has ceased to be a performing asset; most legislators’ primary political relationships seem to be with staffers and lobbyists rather than constituents. Contrary to the Constitution of Minnesota, the Legislature does much of its lawmaking in huge “omnibus bills” ginned up in closed proceedings, denying citizens real participation. Citizens showing up to testify at the Capitol are likely to be treated disrespectfully.

The basic equation of environmental politics is simple: Special interests — developers, chemical manufacturers, oil, and gas interests, auto makers, utilities — seek to weaken environmental laws. Informed citizens tend to want them strengthened. It’s obvious which is the strongest voice most of the time

Problem politics

The previous low point was during Ronald Reagan�s presidency (1981-1989), the real predecessor of Donald Trump. Reagan appointed agency heads who did not believe in the mission of the agencies. He allowed industry lobbyists to run the government. Needy people were denied benefits and services. Taxes on the rich and on corporations were cut and deficits zoomed. Multiple scandals resulted in the investigation, indictment, or conviction of over 138 administration officials.

After Reagan, the political pendulum oscillated, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies never really recovered from the damage done to them. The U.S., once a global leader in environmental protection, became a backwater. Many “big green” environmental groups slid into the pockets of those they were supposed to oppose.

In spite of all this, much has been accomplished by the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act and other basic laws. Stinking rivers and visibly belching smokestacks and burning dumps are largely gone — though less obvious forms of harmful pollution remain. Nothing has come easily: thousands of citizen activists, often aided by motivated regulators, have fought to overcome the foot-dragging of industrial and municipal polluters.

Now we are in the nightmare of Trump. He’s Reagan multiplied. Laws and regulations are being gutted — everything from smokestack pollution limits to auto fuel economy standards are going down.

So let’s take a look at Minnesota, and then at local government.

Minnesota governors

When I first came to Red Wing, Tim “fiscal gimmicks” Pawlenty was governor. He did allow the release of a useful report on Minnesota’s climate changing emissions, but the report has not been followed up. Pawlenty turned the Pollution Control Agency over to the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. Now, he’s a Washington lobbyist for financial services.

Next came Mark Dayton. A rich guy, Dayton wasn’t ill-disposed toward the problems of ordinary Minnesotans, but he had little interest in environmental problems. His trademark proposal was for buffers between agricultural fields and waterways. A sound idea that had already been enacted, but not enforced. It still isn’t.

Dayton showed little awareness of the need to protect the independence and integrity of agencies like the MPCA and the Department of Natural Resources. He seemed to see them solely in political terms. Thus, “sham” permits for mining projects were issued, and the Citizens’ Board was shut down. Minnesota courts, to their credit, have been rejecting these permits.

Dayton was OK with turning a billion dollars over to a New Jersey family owning a football team, and he was OK with turning half a billion dollars over to Mayo Clinic to attract rich foreign patients. He did a lot to demonstrate a lack of integrity in Minnesota’s political culture.

Now we have Gov. Tim Walz. He’s a seasoned politician used to representing a conservative congressional district. He’s earning respect for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. But, if anything, he seems to have less interest in environmental problems than Dayton had. Walz seems determined to defend the sham mining permits, regardless of the impact on the DNR and the PCA, and on our air and water. His appointments to the Public Utilities Commission have been weak at best, leaving the utilities in control. His “clean energy” rollout was much like Dayton’s “buffers” plan: It sounded good, but in fact was little more than a dose of greenwashing for Xcel Energy.

A company town

Red Wing is a city with two (formerly three) belching garbage incinerator smokestacks, two nuclear reactors, multiple garbage/incinerator ash dumps, a nuclear waste cask parking lot, and a history of seeking to bring more garbage to be burned — with the residues deposited in residents’ lungs. There is a history of spending residents’ money to lobby against enforcement of the Clean Water Act.

It is likely that many Red Wing residents suffer from respiratory and cardiovascular ailments connected to breathing polluted air, but public health officials are not interested in finding out. Is this compatible with marketing Red Wing as a tourist destination? The City Council responds contemptuously to objections.

All this comes from a “company town” mentality, with city and county officials happy to do as they are told by Xcel Energy and other big polluters. There is little or no independent environmental advocacy, and local orgs aren’t noticeably supportive of independent voices.

Can this be changed? Of course, but it calls for residents to assert themselves, to take control and accept responsibility, to develop a more confident, self-respecting relationship with government. The organized opposition a few years ago (“Save the Bluffs”) to frack sand mining, shows it is possible.

Minnesota is wealthy in dollars and educated people. We can do a lot better, if we decide to expect it of ourselves. The effective opposition to copper mining on the Iron Range shows what can be done when people focus effectively.

Alan Muller was formerly consultant to a big chemical company and then Executive Director of Green Delaware.

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