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May 29, 2024

5 Takeaways from the 2024 Minnesota Legislative Session

By Aaron Klemz, Chief Strategy Officer

The 2024 Legislative Session was another productive one for the MCEA team and for stronger environmental protection in Minnesota laws. It resulted in a legislative fix to the public waters issues highlighted by MCEA’s win in the Limbo Creek case, unprecedented funding to address nitrate pollution of drinking water in southeastern Minnesota, clean energy permitting improvements and much more. 


Here are five things you need to know: 

#1 - Enhanced Public Waters Protections: The Minnesota Legislature passed a comprehensive update to protect Minnesota’s public waters. It ensures that all public waters that meet the definition are both protected in statute and accurately reflected on the Public Waters Inventory, a list and map of protected public waters. These changes complete MCEA’s Minnesota Supreme Court victory in the Limbo Creek in 2022. Not only did MCEA’s work help secure a clarified definition of public waters, the Legislature committed $8 million to comprehensively update the PWI. This was a compromise with agricultural commodity groups who wanted certainty in the PWI map and list, and funds a technology-driven process that will ensure the woefully outdated PWI becomes an accurate reflection of Minnesota’s protected waters. 

With technologies like satellite imagery, LiDAR, and GIS, this update will correct errors in the hundreds of stream miles that the DNR erroneously deleted from the PWI in 2017 and has the potential to add hundreds of additional miles of public waters to the PWI. The PWI has not been updated since it was completed in the early 1980’s. 

Thanks to everyone involved in achieving this win, especially House author Kirsti Pursell (DFL-Northfield), Senate author Mary Kunesh (DFL-New Brighton), Chair Rick Hansen (DFL-South St. Paul) and Senate Chair Foung Hawj (DFL-St. Paul). In addition, thanks to Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Sarah Strommen and Governor Tim Walz for supporting the funding needed for this compromise to happen. 

#2 - Over $13 million to address fish kills and nitrate contamination in southeastern Minnesota: The MCEA-led petition to the US Environmental Protection Agency calling for action under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act has set off what one legislative staffer called “a Manhattan project for clean drinking water in the karst.” After several pre-session hearings helped frame the importance of the issue for the Legislature, a significant amount of money was tapped to begin a multi-agency response to groundwater nitrate pollution and fish kills across southeastern Minnesota. This is a good down payment on actions to address pollution in the karst region, but it will take more sustained funding to address this issue over the longer term,

A combination of Legacy Amendment Clean Water Fund and general fund money will be used to test wells for unsafe levels of nitrates ($2.79 million from the Clean Water Fund), and provide safe drinking water (including water treatment) for people with polluted wells ($2.8 million from the general fund.) 

In addition, a number of new programs will improve agricultural practices. MCEA is particularly proud of the $850,000 manure management grant program for small and medium-sized farms that passed in the environment budget bill and which can be used to unlock matching money from the federal government. This was authored by Sen. Heather Gustafson (DFL-Vadnais Heights) and Rep. Kirsti Pursell (DFL-Northfield).. Other items included $1 million to develop best management practices to address nitrate pollution, $3 million in Agricultural Best Management Practices loans targeting SE Minnesota, $495,000 in soil health management grants targeting the area, $1 million to acquire conservation easements to protect drinking water supply management areas, and $2 million to develop a nitrate monitoring program for surface water. 

Thanks to all of the MCEA supporters who called and emailed their legislators asking for action on this issue. After three decades of inaction, we’re glad to see the Legislature starting to clean up drinking water in the vulnerable karst areas of southeastern Minnesota. 

#3 - Clean energy permitting improvements and new carbon capture pipeline protections: MCEA’s Climate Program Director Amelia Vohs was deeply involved in the work to craft a clean energy permitting bill that eliminates unneeded delays in solar, wind, transmission, and storage permitting, while still protecting public input and environmental protection. 

The clean energy permitting changes were included in the Agriculture and Energy supplemental budget bill, where Senate Energy Chair Nick Frentz (DFL-Mankato) and House Climate Chair Patty Acomb (DFL-Minnetonka) also agreed to include mandatory environmental review for carbon capture pipelines under the Minnesota Environmental Policy Act. They also added a 

 requirement that all CO2 pipelines get a route permit from the Public Utilities Commission. House Majority Leader Jamie Long (DFL-Minneapolis) who authored the House clean energy permitting bill, also played a critical role.

The budget bill also included $50 million in solar incentives over the next decade, $6 million for a geothermal district heating and cooling system at Sabathani Center in Minneapolis, $1 million for a study of the impact of carbon pipelines, and funding for additional Department of Commerce staff to advocate for the public interest in PUC cases. 

#4 - Funding to test biosolids for PFAS and incorporating results into permits: MCEA’s report “Forever Chemicals in our Wastewater” resonated at the Minnesota Capitol and yielded results. As our November 2023 report revealed, higher levels of PFAS were found in streams and rivers downstream of farm fields where wastewater biosolid fertilizer was applied, as well as in the treated wastewater discharged from a wastewater treatment plant.  Some of the strategies our report suggested for addressing this prevalent PFAS source found their way into the environment budget. $350,000 was allocated to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to create a strategy for testing biosolids for PFAS and adding that to water discharge permits. In addition, a report will be commissioned to examine ways to prevent polluters from sending PFAS pollution to wastewater plants and ways to ensure that polluters pay for the cost of removing PFAS. Findings will be reported back to the Legislature. 

The federal government adopted drinking water standards for several PFAS “forever chemicals” in April,  adding urgency to this work. MCEA is proud of our role in advocating for Amara’s Law in 2023, and the actions taken by the Legislature and the federal government in 2024 continue the momentum to address “forever chemical” pollution.

#5 - Significant funding to enforce air pollution permits in environmental justice areas: One disappointment this session was that bills that could have helped address the Smith Foundry pollution in the East Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis did not pass. This bill that would have allowed large cities to phase out polluting operations that don’t meet current zoning requirements (called “amortization.”) While this bill was heard in both the House and Senate State and Local Government Committees, it was not included in budget bills and did not become law. In addition, funding to buy out the Smith Foundry was not passed. 

One bright spot is that the story of Smith Foundry, and the failure to enforce Minnesota pollution laws, did yield bills that increased the enforcement of permit violations in environmental justice areas. Nearly $3 million was appropriated in 2025 and $2.6 million in following years to pay for this enforcement effort. That will add 14 full-time staff to focus on enforcement of our air pollution laws. In addition, a $1 million appropriation to pay for a mobile air pollution monitor and funding to staff it will increase the speed of enforcement when violations occur. 

MCEA worked with Rep. Fue Lee (DFL-Minneapolis) on an additional provision that would have given any Minnesota resident the ability to bring an enforcement action for permit violations. This “individual enforcement” approach is similar to federal environmental laws like the Clean Water Act, where individuals can act as the attorney general and ask a court to determine if a permit violation occurred. While this provision was eventually dropped, we’re thankful for Rep. Lee’s leadership on environmental justice and we hope to get this done in a future session. 

All of this work isn’t possible without you - thank you for your support and your response to our calls to action. Over 1,300 of you emailed your legislators throughout this session, and it made a big difference. And thanks to legislators from across the state who met with us, engaged with our ideas, championed them, and made them happen.