Conservationists see mix of wins and losses in legislative session

White Bear Lake
The Clean Water Legacy bill would help fund clean up of polluted Minnesota waterways. Lawmakers also passed mercury emission reduction legislation this session. The Governor signed the mercury bill at a VFW lodge on the shores of White Bear Lake.
MPR Photo/Lorna Benson

They didn't get everything they wanted.

But some environmental groups say they are pleased that lawmakers passed one of the toughest mercury emission laws in the nation, as well as a bill that dedicates millions of dollars to start cleaning up the state's polluted rivers and lakes.

The mercury legislation, signed by the Gov. Pawlenty earlier this month, requires a 90-percent reduction in emissions at the state's largest coal-fired power plants beginning in 2010. The Clean Water Legacy bill passed by lawmakers this weekend dedicates $15 million toward cleaning up Minnesota's polluted rivers and lakes. When combined with funding from a capital investment bill, lawmakers approved almost $25 million for clean water this session.

Mississippi River
A stretch of the Mississippi River near Grand Rapids.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

Twenty-five million is actually far short of the $40 million floor that conservation groups said they were willing to accept. But in the end Steve Morse with the Minnesota Environmental Partnership says it's still a good start.

"Twenty-five million dollars in new environmental funding for a specific program area like clean water is a real win," he says. "It's a big step forward."

Morse is quick to point out that the bill has some flaws. He points to a provision that allows some large polluters to avoid and delay water clean up projects. That language was inserted in the bill at the last-minute and is especially irksome to the Clean Water Action Alliance, which pulled its support for the legislation.

"We believe it's really a dirty water legacy bill," says Brian Elliott, political director for the alliance.

We believe the (Clean Water Legacy bill) is really a dirty water legacy bill.

Elliott says the new language allows the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to issue a permit for new or expanded waste water discharges before the agency completes a pollution assessment of the waterway. He says the change undermines the state's decade-old formula for trading pollution credits.

"The provision in the bill allows credits to be traded even before that baseline is established and that's going to result in dirtier water in our state," he says. Elliott says the Clean Water Legacy bill also rolls back the MPCA's proposed phosphorus reduction rules for wastewater treatment plants. He says the bill's funding is a one-time contribution, so environmental groups will have to approach the Legislature again next year to get money for future clean up projects.

That relentless quest for funding was one reason so many hunting and fishing groups supported the idea of a constitutional amendment that would permanently earmark a portion of the state sales tax for conservation.

Dave Zenter, co-chair of the Ducks, Wetlands and Clean Water rally, which drew approximately 5,000 Minnesotans to the Capitol last month, says he's deeply disappointed that lawmakers failed to reach agreement on differences in how to fund the proposed sales tax.

Lake Calhoun
Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

"Why is it that, and I hate to use labels but wealthy, wealthy athletes and sports owners can get movement in the case of the Twins stadium, and (we are) told by legislators that we're quite not on that rung of the ladder of importance? What's more important than clean water?"

The Senate wanted to raise the tax 3/8's of a percent, while the House wanted to dedicate an 1/8 of a percent from the existing sales tax and ask voters to approve an additional 1/8th of a percent increase. Ultimately House and Senate negotiators were unable to break the deadlock over the two proposals.

But Zentner says he's not going to give up on the idea and he hopes other conservation groups don't give up either.

"My intent is to encourage us all to get together very quickly. By that I mean within the next couple three see if people have enough life in them to go to work on this sooner rather than later," he says.

Despite his disappointment over the sales tax defeat, Zentner says he does agree that there are some environmental victories to celebrate this session. He says lawmakers did approve a loan program to protect wetlands and they established a duck recovery plan.

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