Tag Archives | Red Wing

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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Pros and cons of gun ranges … letter written to the Red Wing City Council


I wrote this to the City Council because I live here and nobody seemed to be mentioning the issues that I think really matter.  None acknowledged it.  None brought up any of these issues in a long and tedious meeting.  Nobody seems to be minding the store or looking out for the best interests of residents.   Worth noting is that one of the people behind the gun range proposal is Jason Sebion, recently resigned from the City Council.  The promoters want to buy a large city-owned building for $1000.  My concern, per usual, is for health and welfare issues ignored by all the council members.  None of this has anything in particular to do with how one feels about guns in general.


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Action Alert: Minnesota Public Utilities Commission: Withdraw funding for increased garbage incineration!

If you want, skip the gory details and go directly to the action items lower down!

As someone with a longstanding interest in energy and environmental issues, Minnesota can be a little strange.  The state, or at least the central part of it, often seems like a wholly owned subsidiary of Xcel Energy (Northern States Power Company).  I’m appalled by the ease with which Xcel seems able to impose its will, and the lack of dignity and self-respect with which officials and self-proclaimed energy/environmental advocates kowtow, grin and shuffle, for Xcel.  Worse, I’m living in Red Wing, blessed with two Xcel nuclear reactors, Prairie Island 1 and 2, two Xcel garbage incinerators ( an old convertedcoal plant) and an Xcel nuclear waste parking lot, all within the city limits.  As far as what Xcel has to offer, Red Wing has it all!

There are so many interlocking scams going on, involving so many entities and so many moral and intellectual failures, that it can look and feel overwhelming.  I’m going to focus on one here and ask for your help: Continue Reading →

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Commentary: City must be diligent on solar


By Alan Muller

 Red Wing
The Legislature and the Public Utilities Commission have focused attention on the relationships between Xcel Energy and solar garden developers, but given little attention to the relationships between developers and “subscribers.” What would the contracts look like? What would the actual cost be? What protections would subscribers and landowners have if a developer failed? What are the true benefits to subscribers and investors?

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City of Red Wing seeks garbage monopoly at expense of rural and small town residents

Recycling ignored

Minnesota law ignored

Recently, after years of campaigning by residents, Hennepin County abandoned it’s plan to burn more garbage in downtown Minneapolis and called upon the city to collect more materials for recycling.  The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), which had always opposed the residents’ campaign, reacted with displeasure, broadcastingan email saying: “The HERC incinerator will remain an important component of how the metro area manages garbage disposal.”

It should be no secret that a key cause of Minnesota’s failure for many years to make real progress on recycling is the MPCA itself.  The MPCA makes waste policy, issues permits for waste facilities, does environmental review of many of them,  and also makes grants for building/expanding these same facilities.  There are huge conflicts of interest in these multiple roles.  How can anybody believe the PCA is objective about a facility that it is funding?  Worse, the PCA’s waste policy people act as a branch of the garbage incineration industry.  Rather than focus on the top of the Minnesota “waste hierarchy”–source reduction and recycling–the PCA inverts the intent of the law and focuses on the bottom of the hierarchy–dumping and burning.

The Minnesota Legislative Auditor has said:

Minnesota law says that counties should manage municipal solid
waste according to a hierarchy that makes waste reduction, reuse, and
recycling the preferred methods and landfill disposal the least
preferred. In 1989, the Legislature adopted comprehensive waste
reduction and recycling legislation, commonly referred to as SCORE,
to support the waste management hierarchy. Among other things, the
legislation authorized state block grants to counties that could be used
for recycling and waste reduction activities, education, developing
markets for recycled material, and management of household
hazardous waste. The legislation also established goals for recycling
and waste reduction.

But the PCA puts constant pressure on counties and municipalities to burn more, at great expense and harm to air quality, while doing very little if anything to increase recycling.  Shameful examples of this can be found all over Minnesota, but here I will focus on Red Wing and Goodhue County.  The MPCA’s chief incineration agent is Sig Schurle, who prowls the state promoting the big burn.  (Schurle doesn’t return calls from this writer.  As a matter of fact, nobody at the MPCA seems to be returning my calls right now.)

The City of Red Wing has been into garbage incineration for a long time, with the usual toxic effects not only on the air but on policy.  For instance, Red Wing has lobbied the MPCA for years to get it to force more garbage from the Cities to be sent to Red Wing.  Why, because Red Wing’s burner has been losing the City lots of money for years and city officials’ idea of how to fix that is to get more garbage to burn.  Red Wing public works director Rick Moskwa said “since I took over that facility ten years ago, all I’ve done is look for waste [to burn].” The City has curtailed library hours, stopped distributing a newsletter, and curtailed other useful services while wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars per year keeping the burner going.

Now, Red Wing has shut down its municipal burner–old, dirty, obsolete, with a bad record of permit violations–and is working various alternative burner scams with Xcel Energy and the MPCA.  Why?  Xcel Energy also burns garbage in Red Wing in two converted 1940’s coal burners.  Xcel also wants to burn more garbage.  So the Red Wing legislative agenda for 2014 includes opposing a container deposit bill, more Cities garbage burned in Red Wing, and diversion of money from the Xcel “Renewable Development Fund” to buy Red Wing a garbage grinder–to increase burning at the Xcel incinerators.  Is all this shameful enough?  Read on:

For years Red Wing has also tried to force municipalities and waste haulers in and around Goodhue County to send their garbage for burning in Red Wing.  So far, these efforts have failed.  Now, Xcel, Red Wing, and the MPCA are trying again, beating on Goodhue County with carrots and sticks:

(1)     The MPCA is withholding approval of the Goodhue County solid waste plan;
(2)     he MPCA has withheld the last three “SCORE” payments–totaling about $70,000–to Goodhue County, and
(3)     is offering to transfer responsibility for an old closed landfill to the state.  This would require special legislation which Rep. Tim Kelly is reportedly prepared to introduce.

The conditions:  Goodhue County to pass a “flow control” ordinance forcing all county garbage to be taken to Red Wing for grinding up and burning.  Red Wing projects this monopoly would bring the city garbage operation an additional 8,000 tons/year of waste.  The motivation is financial:  it would bring the money-losing operation closer to break-even.

In effect:  Red Wing’s money-losing garbage operation, and the Xcel garbage burners, would be subsidized by rural Goodhue County residents.

At a March 3rd “workshop” on the scheme, attended by Red Wing city council members, Sig The Burner Man, and Greg Isakson, Goodhue County Public Works Director and County Engineer.  All said they liked the idea.  No public comment was allowed.  No mention was made of the health effects of more garbage incinerator pollution.   No mention was made of recycling except as a possible future issue.  (Red Wing’s Deputy Director of Solid Waste, Jeff Schneider, used to be “State Recycling Coordinator” at the MPCA.)

Data provided by Goodhue County indicates county recycling rates peaked at in 43% in 2007 but had dropped to 37 by 2012.

What are the implications of this scheme?

Higher disposal costs for everybody in Goodhue County, especially rural and small-town residents.
More health-damaging incinerator pollution.
Even less recycling.
Possible serious damage to private businesses such as the P.I.G. landfill in Hager City, Wisconsin (across the Mississippi River from Red Wing) that now takes a lot of waste from Goodhue County.


Well, some of the costs of Red Wing’s misguided waste operations could be shifted onto other County residents, and possible landfill cleanup costs could be shifted onto the entire state.  But are these real benefits?


Communities all over the world are getting serious about source reduction and recycling (“zero waste.”)  There’s no reason the City of Red Wing, and Goodhue County, couldn’t do the same (Except for the perverted guidance they get from the “Pollution Control Agency .”)  With time and commitment, we could work up to a recycling rate of 80%, leaving a relatively small amount of stuff to be landfilled, and have solid waste management we could be proud of.

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