Governor Walz and MPCA Endorsing Harmful Pollution During a Pandemic

We are in a moment where Minnesota’s government has an outsized influence on the fate of hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans. This crisis calls for special attention to the public health consequences of pollution. Coronavirus is especially harmful for people with compromised respiratory systems. The State Government should be doing everything in its capacity to protect the respiratory health of Minnesotans. Instead, Governor Walz and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) are using the pandemic as political cover to weaken environmental regulation and to allow increased pollution across Minnesota.

MPCA’s fulfillment of its stated mission “to protect and improve the environment and human health” is already in question. An ongoing case investigated by the Legislative Auditor, a Minnesota court and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) alleges that MPCA suppressed serious concerns from EPA scientists about dangers the PolyMet mining project poses to waterways in Northeast Minnesota.

More recently, the Trump Administration’s EPA suspended enforcement of all environmental regulations due to the coronavirus. Commissioner Bishop’s MPCA appears to be following their lead by issuing a broad emergency ‘flexibility’ policy allowing Minnesota companies to increase pollution. If these companies cannot operate without emitting dangerous pollutants into Minnesota’s air and water, beyond legal limits set by science and fixed in State law, then they shouldn’t operate at all.

MPCA is currently reviewing the Line 3 tar sands oil pipeline, proposed by the Canadian energy transport company Enbridge. Line 3 would cause: significant damage to Northern Minnesota’s pristine waterways; unhealthy particulate air pollution that compounds the inequitable respiratory impacts of the coronavirus; and more greenhouse gas emissions than our entire state currently produces. Enbridge is one of the companies that would profit from “flexibility” under the new EPA and MPCA policies. The heaviest environmental burden will fall on Indigenous communities and people of color who already bear the first and worst impacts of climate change and pollution. By loosening existing permit standards, MPCA is admitting that it doesn’t have capacity to enforce the permit commitments it’s already bound by law to enforce.

After cancelling all in-person opportunities for comment on Line 3, MPCA has given a paltry seven day extension to accept written comments. They have also failed to provide meaningful alternatives to public comment for communities that will be negatively impacted by the project. Environmental justice requires agencies like MPCA to take comment from Indigenous and low-income communities on those communities’ terms, and make sufficient time to hear from people that oppose the project. MPCA’s effort to silence these communities is a blatant failure to thoroughly vet the project and to meaningfully involve Minnesotans in the process.

MPCA’s draft permit states that water quality impacts from Line 3 are “necessary to accommodate important economic or social changes.” This is an insufficient, short-sighted, and essentially untrue framing of the issue. Furthermore, Governor Walz has said: “If Washington doesn’t lead on climate, Minnesota will.” Yet Walz and MPCA claim their hands are tied and they have no choice but to poison our air and water by rolling back environmental protections and rushing approval of a climate catastrophe during a public health crisis. Commissioner Bishop can and must deny Enbridge’s permits for Line 3 based on the pandemic, the agency’s resulting inability to take public comment, and in recognition that no waterway should be permanently polluted and left for future generations to clean up.

Additionally, Governor Walz has acted to advance the pipeline by appointing new Commissioners to the Public Utilities Commission who have shown public support for Line 3. Recently, the Department of Employment and Economic Development has made a special exemption to allow oil pipeline employees to continue working while most of Minnesota is under a stay at home order. Instead of giving the industry a green light, Enbridge’s pre-construction and logging should be halted immediately to protect workers and local communities from the coronavirus.

Governor Walz and Commissioner Bishop must show progressive leadership by denying all permits for Line 3, enforcing existing regulations to their fullest, and prohibiting any additional pollution in Minnesota to protect the future of our state, our country, and the planet.

Dr. Laalitha Surapaneni, MD, MPH is an assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Minnesota.

Tim Schaefer, State Director of Environment Minnesota, is an advocate for protecting Minnesota’s air, water, and special places.