WRITTEN BY: Hudson Kingston, MCEA Staff Attorney
I might be the only one who will miss 2016. Not that I’ll miss the endless politicking, or the unbelievable run of bad news, no, but because 2016 was the official UN International Year of the Pulses. For one shining year, lentils had their own twitter feed. Not since 2008’s Year of the Potato has the UN been so compelling (by contrast, let’s just forget about 2014). In this respect 2016 is a tough act to follow. So I was pleasantly surprised when I read that UN had decided to unveil 2017 as the “International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.”
Sustainable tourism for development is an important concept, and one that is especially important for Minnesota right now. In December, in keeping with the idea of promoting sustainable development, the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture agreed (press release) to “pause” mining exploration and leasing near the Boundary Waters Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park. This pause will give the agencies time to study whether the dangers of sulfide mining are too high to permit it on the doorstep to these amazing wild recreation areas. (For more explanation of the government’s action, please see my colleague’s blog here.)
What’s important to understand is that the agencies aren’t saying that nature trumps the economy, just the opposite. They are interested in how the sustainable economy that exists around and because of these areas is likely threatened by unsustainable industries that produce short-term jobs and long-term pollution (likely for hundreds, if not thousands, of years in the case of water pollution). As Bill Forsberg Sr. wrote in 2013: “Outdoor recreation in Minnesota generates $11.6 billion in consumer spending, 118,000 direct jobs paying $3.4 billion in wages, and $646 million in state and local taxes.”
The growing sustainable tourism industry in Minnesota depends on pristine wilderness worth visiting.
Perplexingly, a month after the above announcement, one of the same federal agencies (the U.S. Forest Service, part of the Department of Agriculture) failed to acknowledge the danger that pollution poses to Minnesota’s sustainable economies. In approving the Environmental Impact Statement for PolyMet’s proposed NorthMet project, the USFS failed to consider the important economies that are tied to clean water in Lake Superior (i.e. winter skiing, summer paddling, and beer, to name a few). Such approval belies Minnesotan’s love for, and reliance upon, the world’s greatest Great Lake. The threat of long-term water pollution from the St. Louis River puts all Duluth industries and people in danger of economic and health harms.
In keeping with the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development and the promise of durable development in Northern Minnesota, mining projects that risk destroying the resources of the area should be looked at with extreme skepticism by government decisionmakers. Sustainable development is not just a buzzword for UN dignitaries—as Aaron Brown wrote in a recent piece on PolyMet:
"This is why I argue that we need to think differently about the economic future of Northern Minnesota. If you like mining, that’s great. We need minerals. The jobs are great. But as a region, we have to plan for a much broader future — one stunted whenever the word “jobs” is tied solely to a shaky commodities business that cares not a lick whether Iron Range towns live or die."
Creating a broader economy through sustainable industries, such as outdoor recreation, also protects against a boom-bust economy based on producing commodities. Sustainable tourism is one area where Northern Minnesota has outsized potential and a unique replenishable resource, its breathtaking natural places. Sustainable economic development can keep our state both prosperous and habitable for centuries to come.
WRITTEN BY: Jim Erkel, MCEA Land Use & Transportation Director
The legislature is back in session, and it will revisit funding for transportation following its chaotic fail at the end of last session. The means by which we fund transportation are complicated, and sometimes difficult to understand. In fact, it is complicated enough that legislators on the transportation committees are starting the session with tutorials on funding mechanisms from the staff at MNDOT and the Metropolitan Council.
The black-box character of how transportation is funded lends itself to a number of talking points that push the discussion, but some of them are either not true, stretch the truth, or need a substantial amount of context to be properly understood.
This is the first post in my blog series called "Dollars & Nonsense." Each post will take a transportation funding issue, or talking point, and I will walk through the policies behind it, look at the numbers, and provide background to better grasp the complexities of transportation policy in Minnesota.
We will start small with a look at how Minnesota's main user fees -- the state's gas tax and Metro Transit's fares -- have kept up with the cost of maintaining and operating roads and transit systems. We will work our way up to big ones, like 'roads pay for themselves; transit is heavily subsidized' and 'the road needs of Greater Minnesota has been neglected.'
Transit critics point out that farebox recovery only covers between 25%-30% of the cost of Metro Transit's operations (note that Metro Transit has not increased fares since 2008) and argue that fares should be raised to reflect the increased costs of operation. As a rule, it is reasonable to expect that user fees will be periodically adjusted to reflect changes in the costs of operation. However, what is good for the goose is also good for the gander. The state's gas tax was last increased in 2008.
In the graphic below, we compare how the user fees have changed since 1988, the last time the state's gas tax was raised before 2008. You will see that the gas tax has been raised only once, while transit fares have been adjusted 10 times. Compared to several measures, transit fares have more than kept up with inflation, and it is the state's gas tax that has failed to keep up with increased costs of operation.
If the gas tax had increased at the same rate as Metro Transit's base fare, we would be paying 40.1 cents per gallon, not 28.5 cents per gallon. Using the rule of thumb that one cent of Minnesota's gas tax raises $30 million per year, the difference of 11.6 cents translates into roughly $348 million per year. That's more than the statutory dedication of sales tax on auto parts and repair to roads proposed by House Republicans last session.
Rather than raiding the general fund and re-directing monies that support issues such as health care and education, road interests should commit to the principle articulated by transit critics, and raise their user fee to reflect the higher costs of operations. Transit already has.
WRITTEN BY: Jenna Greene, student at Carleton College, former MCEA Extern
In 1991, the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit gathered in Washington D.C. and adopted 17 principles of Environmental Justice. These principles affirm the need to protect the earth and frame environmentalism as a social justice issue, emphasizing that many environmental harms disproportionately and adversely affect poor people and people of color.
Since this pivotal summit, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have enacted an environmental justice law, executive order, or policy to ensure that environmental justice concerns continue to be addressed. Environmental justice advocates, policymakers, and community members from around the country have exposed and remediated environmental justice concerns ranging from landfill siting, pollution levels, and access to environmental benefits, but the fight for justice is just beginning.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) recently announced the formation of the MPCA Environmental Justice Advisory Group consisting of 16 members from throughout Minnesota. The purpose of this group is to provide recommendations and advise the MPCA on topics related to environmental justice principles. The advisory group members come from a wide range of backgrounds and focus areas. Make sure to check out the many different projects these group members have been involved with that work toward a more equitable Minnesota.
This monitoring yielded violations of daily and annual TSP standards, exceedances of PM10 daily standards, elevated lead concentrations, and elevated heavy metal concentrations.
This legal battle between MPCA and Northern Metals has not yet been resolved, but the environmental injustices faced by the North Minneapolis community has captured the attention of government officials such as the mayor of Minneapolis, Betsy Hodges, who called this pollution an environmental justice issue affecting “one of the most overburdened neighborhoods in our community.”
North Minneapolis residents have been organizing against the metal shredder facility, including the local rock band Poliça performance to raise awareness of the environmental injustices taking place in the neighborhood. Community activists have been working hard for almost five years to make these issues known to the community and the public. Roxxanne O’Brien, a community activist and North Minneapolis resident, says the community is “literally fighting for our lives.” To read more about the work that North Minneapolis community activists, including O’Brien, have been doing for many years and a more in-depth account of the community movement surrounding the Northern Metals case, check out this Twin Cities Daily Planet article.
Although the legal action against Northern Metals is a step toward eliminating environmental injustices in North Minneapolis, the community has been concerned about environmental and human health for decades, and Northern Metals is not the only polluter in the area. As organizations such as MCEA continue to fight for the health of the environment, it is critical that we consider how environmental harms disproportionately affect certain communities across Minnesota.