According to US PIRG, major Minnesota facilities reported more than 160 water pollution violations to the EPA from July of 2003 to December of 2004. The contaminants ranged from mercury to chlorine and phosphorus to coliform bacteria and oil.
LuCinda Hohmann, with US PIRG's Midwest Field Office, says on average these pollution violations exceeded allowable limits under the Clean Water Act by 121-percent. "And unfortunately this is really just the tip of the iceberg because the U.S. EPA just documents the major facilities in the state. But that leaves out all of the minor facilities that are also polluting our waterways every day," she says.
Hohmann says there were six water pollution violations in Minnesota that were more than 500-percent over legal limits. One of those incidents happened at Xcel Energy's Riverside Plant in downtown Minneapolis in April of 2004. Hohmann says Xcel exceeded the federal limit for solids dumped into the Mississippi river by 1,540-percent.
Paul Adelmann, a spokesman for Xcel Energy, says the incident happened when an overflow hose failed in a holding pond that catches dust, dirt and coal particles from a nearby coal pile.
"In this case we got a very heavy rainfall, about a one inch rainfall. There was a failure of an overflow hose in the system that managed it and about 1,200 gallons of water leaked into the river, with this much higher level of coal particles and dirt particles than what is normally allowed," he said.
Adelmann says Xcel workers discovered the leak right away and fixed the situation.
"These are large industrial facilities and there are times when something will fail and we will have a very temporary exceedance. It doesn't happen very often, but when it does we recognize it, we report it and then we take corrective action.
Another contaminant discharge on the Mississippi River occured at 3M's Cottage Grove production plant, also in April of 2004. In that incident, US PIRG says 3M discharged 3,500 percent more mercury into the river than allowed by law. Bill Nelson, a spokesman for 3M, says the mercury discharge happened, but the EPA figures are incorrect. Nelson says when 3M submitted its report to state officials, the data was accidentally listed as parts per billion, when it was in fact parts per trillion. Nelson says that error translated into a discharge that looked 1000 times greater than it actually was.
Numbers aside, some environmental groups are not convinced that Minnesota companies are doing enough to protect waterways. Patience Caso, with Clean Water Action Alliance of Minnesota, says she realizes that companies have accidents from time to time. But she says the US PIRG report shows these situations are fairly common.
"It's not the one incident, it's the cumulative impacts that we're really concerned about. We have 10,000 lakes in this state that we're proud of. We've only tested a small proportion of those waters to see if they're too polluted for swimming and fishing and we found that 40-percent of them are. So that's a problem when industries are violating their pollution limits," she says.
The US PIRG report blames part of the problem on lax enforcement, particularly at the federal level. LuCinda Hohmann says the EPA doesn't have enough enforcement staff to investigate violations in the state's rivers and lakes.
"What's happening is that the EPA doesn't have enough funding to regulate that. And so the public goes unaware of it. It goes unregulated and we don't even know. All we know is that there are signs along our rivers that say, 'no fishing and swimming.'"
Hohmann says the enforcement situation could get worse. She points to President Bush's 2007 budget proposal that cuts the EPA's budget by $300 million.
Hohmann and other environmental groups say one way they can combat pollutions violations is by urging Congress to pass the Clean Water Authority Restoration Act. The act, which was introduced by Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., would strengthen the original Clean Water Act passed in 1972. It would specify protections for all waterways, not just large rivers and lakes.