By Betsy Lawton, MCEA Program Attorney
Earlier this month an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) rightly told the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) that it could not adopt regulations that violate the federal Clean Water Act, which sets the minimum water quality requirements in all states. The ALJ’s decision acknowledges a basic tenet of the Clean Water Act: that decisions regarding how much pollution is too much, and when pollution control costs are too high to justify, must be based on the latest science, and economic and water quality considerations of the affected community. Blanket decisions exempting upgrades to pollution controls are not allowed by the Clean Water Act.
How Are Decision About Water Pollution Made?
Every five years the MPCA issues permits to sewage plants that treat human waste (and often industrial waste too). These permits include limits on the amount of pollution each facility can put into Minnesota’s streams and lakes. The limits, which are designed to limit pollution to levels that the MPCA deems “safe” for swimming, fishing, and drinking, also impact the types of pollution controls a facility uses to achieve “permitted” levels of pollution. Water pollution permits expire after 5 years for good reason: decisions about pollution must consider the latest science and technology. For example, a permit issued 5 years ago would not have considered limits to meet a more recently adopted clean-up plan for phosphorus pollution, and a permit issued today would not consider the science about safe level of pharmaceuticals that will be developed during the next 5 years. If, when a new permit is issued, the pollution controls needed to keep streams and lakes “safe” would create an undue economic burden on the community, additional time to install pollution control can be granted.
What Went Wrong (or Right)?
The faulty rule, required by a directive of the 2017 legislature, would have allowed municipal sewage treatment plants to avoid installing any new pollution controls to achieve needed pollution reductions for 16 years after its most recent upgrade. This is regardless of the impact of the pollution or the costs of the pollution controls. That means that for emerging pollutants (like pharmaceuticals), even if the state identified an unsafe level and technology to address it, a sewage treatment plant would not need to do anything to address it for nearly two decades. Or if new technology were developed to effectively address a pollutant, the permittee wouldn't have to use it for two decades.
How Did This Happen?
ALJs review most Minnesota rules before they take effect. The ALJ must find that the rules do not conflict with state and federal law. MCEA submitted comments to the ALJ explaining that the rule violates the Clean Water Act and is unnecessary because the MPCA can use a number of tools to be flexible in applying the law where treatment costs are prohibitive. It is yet to be seen whether this decision will be appealed to the Court of Appeals.
By David Patton, MCEA Staff Attorney
My family and I visited the Apostle Islands for the first time in the summer of 2016. On this trip, we discovered the National Park Service’s Junior Ranger program. The Park Service provided us with a free workbook of environmental education activities. After my son and I completed the activities together, a ranger gave him a plastic ranger badge and swore him in as Junior Ranger.
He pledged: “As a Junior Ranger, I promise to teach others about what I learned today, explore other parks and historic sites, and help preserve and protect these places so future generations can enjoy them.”
My four-year-old son took that oath. He didn’t think of it as a cute program the Park Service did for kids. In his mind, he had been inducted into an elite corps of environmental protectors. He had made a pledge and now he has been entrusted with a duty to protect animals and their environment. This was, without a doubt, a watershed moment in his young life.
We got him the official Junior Ranger vest that day. He still wears it to school at least three days a week. After rain storms, he saves earthworms by moving them from the sidewalk to the grass. He carries plastic gloves in his ranger vest specifically for this purpose. And, of course, we always have to stop to help turtles across the road.
My son’s ranger fascination even led to some interesting family revelations. We learned that when my dad was younger, he worked in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and was a ranger in Carlsbad National Park in New Mexico and Death Valley National Monument in California (where I was conceived). We also discovered that my great-uncle Harry (pictured below with his Llewellyn setter and horse – Pat and Irish, respectively). My cousin sent us pictures of him and a newspaper article from the Great Falls Montana Tribune dated February 19, 1928. Harry was a ranger in Glacier National Park for many years. He is recorded as saying, “I loved that country and I want them to keep it always just like it is right now.” He died just seventeen months after leaving his beloved park.
One day last year, I brought my son to work with me on the Mille Lacs reservation where I represented the Band’s Department of Natural Resources. As we were driving by Mille Lacs Lake, I tried to explain what I did for the tribe. I said that I worked with the Band to protect the trees and the water, and especially the fish. He got real quiet in the back of the car like he was thinking hard. After a minute, he piped up, “Dad, you’re a lawyer-ranger.”
“Yeah”, I thought, “I’m a lawyer-ranger.”
I told that story in my interview for MCEA. When MCEA offered me the Staff Attorney position, I told my son that he had helped me get the job. A few days after that, he was sitting in the back seat of the Prius (I know – cliché). Out of the blue, he declared, “You and me have something in common.” I replied, “What’s that?”
“We spend all day, every day trying to protect the environment.”
We're currently planning a Junior Ranger-themed party for his sixth birthday. At the tender age of five years and 11 months, he gets something that I think a lot of us miss. He gets up and goes to school every day. He plays and watches TV like any kid. But in his mind, all day, every day he’s trying to protect the environment. He is looking for earthworms to save. He’s reminding Dad to turn off the light or asking Mom to turn off the water while she brushes her teeth. He pays attention to the world around him and gathers cool rocks and neat looking leaves. He’s also raising a Venus Flytrap named Snapper. Being a Junior Ranger is core to his identity and, even though he doesn’t know the word, being an environmentalist is core to being a Junior Ranger.
Not everyone gets to be a lawyer-ranger. I was recently told that my job is the “Unicorn of Lawyer Jobs”. But every one of us can save earthworms and help turtles across the road. We can make conservationism and environmentalism core values. We can aim our lives toward incremental changes that will improve the quality of life for our kids and their kids. Even if the environment isn’t your job, it can be your priority.
By Steven Malikowski - MCEA volunteer and freelance writer
A few years ago, I cycled a lot in jolly olde England. It was great cycling, but seeing older England gave insights about younger and future Minnesota. Pictures of England and Scotland tell a few stories.
The rolling hills are wonderful. They provide great sights and a bit of exercise, but there's something in the pictures that I hope you notice.
I'm now going to do something that more experienced, and wise, bloggers would never recommend. They know that blog readers rarely start reading again if they stop. I'm going to ask that you stop reading, after this paragraph. Instead, please look closely at the pictures and answer a simple question. What's unique about the British landscape?
I’ll give you a hint. There’s something missing in the pictures, always hard to see what’s not there instead of what is. One more hint, what’s the tallest thing you see in the pictures? If you haven't noticed yet, I'll give a final hint, which wise bloggers would probably forbid.
I suggest you look away from this electronic window and out a real one. When looking out that window, what do you see that's common, tall, and not in many of these pictures?
The answer has bark, and here in Minnesota, they show up in wonderfully large groups, like woods or forests. One of my cycle trips in Britain was 1,100 miles. On that trip, I saw very few woods or forests. The woods were usually in places that are very hard to farm. The forests were usually planted in a grid pattern and behind a tall fence, since they were crops for logging. After a while, the rolling hills of England became less jolly, since there were so many hills with only grass or crops.
I mentioned this to a friend who grew up on a farm, in Minnesota. His response was that the woods and forests here would never go away. At the time, I couldn't think of a good reply, but since, I've wondered about the White Pine forests that used to be here, probably outside the real window you may have just used.
There was also a fascinating and troubling study done with satellite images. Researchers used satellite images to see what happened to forests from 2008 - 2012. One result was that forest, woods and wetland shrunk when crop prices went up. Minnesota lost 13,000 acres of forests and 25,000 acres of wetlands.
My farming friend and others may still say that Minnesota's woods and forests will always be around, that taking a few more trees is worth the profit. These days, that attitude reminds me of Jolly Olde England again, in the maps below. The top two are from the fabled Sherwood Forest.
England has existed for about 1,500 years. About 170 years ago, the Minnesota Territory was established. We're very young. Hopefully, our laws will continue to protect our wilderness, but laws can change, for better or worse. If they change for the better, we'll keep our wilderness. If not, the pictures at the top of this post could be of Minnesota, soon enough.
That leads me to the MCEA. I'm a new volunteer, and blogger. After moving back to the US in 2015, I heard about the MCEA, browsed its website, and found ways to help. I hope you will do the same, since it really is time to stop reading this blog post and do something. If you think this blog will help others get involved, please send them the link.
About the author
Steven Malikowski is a freelance writer at WordShop Services. After publishing several academic articles, he wanted to write something people would actually read, and hopefully enjoy. That started with a blog about his cycle touring, continued with a novel based on the time his brother lost his sight, and currently, he is writing about environmental issues.
Last week, MCEA Staff Attorney Kevin Lee and MCEA Communications Director Aaron Klemz screened An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, the follow up movie to An Inconvenient Truth. An Inconvenient Sequel follows former Vice President Al Gore as he presents research on climate change around the globe, attempts to help the passage of the Paris Climate Accords, and travels to see the impact of climate change. It’s a strong update of the 2006 movie and provides a needed dose of hope in the wake of the U.S. federal government withdrawal from the Paris Accords.
Kevin and Aaron had a chance to sit down with the directors of the movie, Bonni Cohen and Jon Schenk, to ask them about the movie, the state of climate activism, and the importance of working at the state and local level.
Just one day after the interview, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission updated their "cost of carbon" used when making power plant decisions. This took four years of work here at MCEA. It ensures that from now on, Minnesota will accurately reflect the cost that climate change imposes on people when choosing between renewable energy sources and fossil fuel based energy. It's one example of how MCEA works at the state level to ensure a livable planet for our children and grandchildren.
An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power opens Friday, August 4th at the Uptown Theater in Minneapolis.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Aaron Klemz of MCEA: Eleven years after the first film, An Inconvenient Truth, it seemed like we would be past this "debate" about scientific evidence and whether we need to prove the reality of climate change any more. And of course there is a lot less emphasis in this sequel than there was in the 2006 film. How did you make decisions about how much emphasis to place on the reality of climate change and how it’s accelerating as you put the film together?
Bonnie Cohen: You know there’s a expression that Al Gore uses often, “the hope bucket.” When you’re talking to human beings about this kind of devastation, an existential crisis of this magnitude, you have to have a “hope bucket” in the conversation somewhere so that they don’t become paralyzed with fear and aren’t moved to act. That kind of thesis we talked about a lot in the making of the film – just how far do we go before we infuse a little bit of information about the sustainability revolution taking hold right now and the cost decrease of solar and wind and how effective that is in turning all of this around, it’s just a question of how quickly.
Obviously we thought it was very important, as did Al, to let the viewership know just how bad things have gotten in terms of hottest years, climate related weather events that have gotten so much more serious in the last 10 years, droughts, fires, Zika picking up further into the northern hemisphere. So that is all in there, but very often you’ll see Al Gore turn around and give an example of how we can also work to combat the climate crisis. So, we were always thinking about how much a viewer could take before they would just want to walk out of the theater and throw their hands up in the air and not want to act.
Kevin Lee of MCEA: Since we work in the policy field and we’re pretty steeped in this, we’re constantly bombarded with a lot of bad news on this front. To follow up on what you were talking about in the “hope bucket,” we’re there any experiences you had while shooting the film that gave you optimism that this is a solvable problem?
BC: You see Eric Rignot in the film, he’s an incredible French scientist, he teaches at UC-Irvine where he is a glaciologist. He’s in the film in Greenland on a boat with Al Gore, showing him where the ice was in the 1980’s. When we got to Greenland he had just released his new report on what was going on in Antarctica and Al was just completely devastated by it. He actually said to him “I read your reports, I’m an eternal optimist but even me, I’m having a hard time coming back from this.” And Eric said, “It’s true, of course, that we’ve done irrevocable damage. There are things that we cannot get back, but the best way to think about is it’s as if you’ve cut off most of your pinkie finger. Do you give up on the other nine fingers?” And for whatever reason, all of us thought that was the most positive thing we’d heard. We were all ready to saw off our fingers!
Jon Shenk: We were really uplifted many times throughout the production process by the exciting news of what’s going on with the innovative technologies of the sustainable revolution, as Al Gore calls it. In the original film, there’s a famous shot where Al Gore got on a scissor lift and has to lift himself practically out of the theater to show how bad global warming has gotten and how bad carbon dioxide has gotten in the atmosphere. There are graphs just as dramatic showing the cost downcurve of solar and wind.
Bonnie and I put solar on our house about 10 years ago and even then it was a cash-positive net gain for us, but now it’s very dramatic. In many states in the US you can call a solar supplier and the next day you can be paying less for electricity, it’s kind of a no-brainer. So then it comes down to policy, and politics.
In the film you see Al meet a mayor in oil country in Texas. That’s kind of a two-fold piece of optimism for us. One, because it really reveals that Al is in kind of a post-political world, he’s beyond politics, his career has moved beyond to this realm of activism where he doesn’t care if you’re a conservative or a liberal anymore, he just cares about solving the problem. He met with [Georgetown, Texas Mayor] Dale Ross, and of course they agree that solar and wind make sense financially. And oh, by the way, once you go there the air is cleaner and you can leave a better planet for your children. It really gave us an enormous amount of hope to see scenes like that.
AK: It’s interesting that you mention this idea of being “post-politics” because the specter of the election is cast throughout this movie. When you were shooting this movie you didn’t know that in November 2016 we were going to see an election that threatens to reverse a lot of the political progress on renewable energy and climate change. If you had more time to make changes or shoot new material, what would you have added to this film?
BC: The truth is that Trump, I hesitate to say this, is at the very early part of his tenure as President. It is a grim reality. Al was very funny, we were in France showing the film in May. His favorite line was “Well, I’m glad we’re at the halfway mark of Trump’s presidency.” Even though Trump has dismantled the EPA, he’s made these cabinet appointments of climate deniers, and now he’s pulled out of the Paris Climate Accords, which is insanity, it’s hard to know what the effects are actually going to be. So in terms of including him further as a character, we would actually have to stay with this for longer. Because the truth is that while he is undoing all of this, regular citizens of this country like yourselves, and mayors in small towns, and Governors like [California’s] Jerry Brown are continuing to move this all forward.
So, is he actually going to be able to undo as much as he thinks he is? It’s hard to know. It feels like progress is still very much underway. You can still get to the Paris commitments, as an example, even if Trump is trying to pull out of it. I think we have to constantly ask ourselves, in reality what do all these devastating things that he’s doing really mean? And in terms of the film, what would we have actually included besides knowing that we’re facing this now? We haven’t experienced it yet.
JS: Bonni and I really come from an observational school of film making where we lay a plan to try to capture the reality of the story were doing. In this case it was really Al Gore’s story and the work that he does to try to solve the climate crisis. The documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker said that documentarians don’t have the luxury of screenwriting. We can’t invent stuff, we film what is actually happening and then we piece it together the best we can. And the audience themselves has to fill in the gaps, to a certain extent. We make films where we really respect the audience. We know that people bring an intelligence to this story, and global warming and the climate crisis has been in our culture for long enough, partly thanks to an Inconvenient Truth, that we have the language. We don’t need to condescend and berate people about the basic science anymore. I think most Americans know the basic science. And so the real story for us was how fast are we moving to solve the problem?
To us, that has real drama because the technology exists now for us to get there. So, we’re not really kicking ourselves because we didn’t have any more time. We’re really proud that we were able to get such great access to Al’s world and be there for the meetings he did to gain the information he then gives in his slideshow. And, of course, during Paris when he did whatever he could there to make a deal successful. We really hope that this is a document of a really driven person trying to the right thing during a difficult period in the planet’s history.
BC: Al Gore was very worried when Trump pulled out of the Paris Accords that other countries would follow suit. And the truth is the absolute reverse thing happened. Countries doubled down on their commitments in Paris. We often marvel at the fact that in those first days after he pulled out of the Paris Accords that all the major news networks were talking about the climate crisis. When was the last time that climate was major news in this country? So, maybe there was a reverse psychology happening there.
JS: There is this funny little thing that gets in the way of the denialist agenda, which is the truth.
BC: There still is truth.
KL: One thing we hear a lot of since the election is that a lot of attention has turned toward the states, and we see that a lot here with the work that we do. Has Al Gore shifted his activism in the same way? Does he see the states as the next front in moving these policies along?
BC: Definitely. I don’t know that he sees it as “the next front,” but he sees it as an important front. [California Governor] Jerry Brown was at our screening last night, and he was talking about very important legislation that he just passed on methane in the state of California. One of the reasons we have the scene with the Mayor of Georgetown [Texas] is that Al Gore really believes that local and state government can do a hell of a lot when the federal government is obstructionist.
JS: One of the best moments for me in the wake of Trump’s devastating announcement about the Paris Accords is that Trump said he was elected to represent the people of Pittsburgh, not the people of Paris. Within a day or two, the Mayor of Pittsburgh stood up and said, “Wait a minute. I’m the mayor of Pittsburgh and the people that I represent want to stay in in Paris because we want to save our environment.” And so cities are enormously important because so much of the electricity use in our country goes predominantly to urban areas. If you can take cituies like Pittsburgh and giant metropolises like New York and San Francisco carbon neutral, it’s very exciting and well worth activists’ energy.
JS: It’s organizations like yours that are pushing things forward.
BC: Now more than ever.
JS: We hope you agree, by getting people out to the film it really sends a message. One of the ways we vote these days is by what we pay attention to. When, hopefully, millions of people go to see this film, it sends another strong message that “wow, people care about this stuff.”
By Jim Erkel - MCEA Attorney & Director, Land Use & Transportation Program
In MCEA’s land use and development program, I argue for policy platforms and funding mechanisms that will support more compact and mixed-use forms of development and a transit system that will allow residents to access all of the social, economic, and environmental assets the region affords. The strategies MCEA supports will improve the air we breathe and the water we drink, protect our region’s remaining natural areas, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and make the region more resilient as it confronts the effects of a changing climate.
If properly implemented, the strategies will also help reduce the region’s problem with some of the nation’s worst racial disparities in housing, health, education, and employment. This summer, I’m planning to read two books that explore the role of the law in creating the kind of racial disparities the region confronts, assess how the disparities exacerbate economic inequalities, and consider solutions that will help make the economic engines that regions represent work for all of their residents.
Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law:
A Forgotten History of how Our Government Segregated America
This book catalogs the legal mechanisms that were used to establish and reinforce neighborhood segregation. In particular, it considers the use of racially restrictive covenants. In a recent report, MCEA assessed the role such covenants played in the history of intentional racism, economic neglect, and geographic isolation that still burdens the Near North neighborhoods of Minneapolis.
Richard Florida’s The New Urban Crisis:
How Our Cities are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation,
and Failing the Middle Class – And What We Can Do About It
In previous books, Florida argued that human capital, particularly the creative class, would determine success in regional economic competition. Following the Great Recession, Florida saw that attracting and building the creative class was having the effect of worsening economic inequalities. He argues for a set of policies that will lead to an ‘urbanism for all.’ The solutions Florida sets out reflect many of the strategies MCEA supports such as transit access, local business opportunities, and neighborhood preservation. Working with its allies, MCEA helped to include these kinds of policy threads in the Saint Paul’s Central Corridor Development Strategy.
I will probably run through several yellow highlighters when I read the books this summer so that I can come back to them for ideas and inspiration as MCEA moves forward in advocating for policies and funding that will advance regional equity the definition of which I take from a past summer’s reading recommendation, a book by Manuel Pastor, Jr., Chris Benner, and Martha Matsuoka entitled This Could Be the Start of Something Big: How Social Movements for Regional Equity are Reshaping Metropolitan America –
“(R)egional equity means considering both people and place. A competitive and inclusive region is one in which members of all racial, ethnic, and income groups have opportunities to live and work in all parts of the region, have access to living wage jobs and are included in the mainstream of regional life. It is also one in which all neighborhoods are supported to be vibrant places with choices for affordable housing, good schools, access to open space, decent transit that connects people to jobs, and healthy and sustainable environments.”
What are you reading this summer? Leave your suggestions in the comments below.