By STEVE KARNOWSKI
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The new head of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency on Wednesday deflected criticism of draft standards for cleaning up the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, saying the agency can't compel farmers to cut the runoff that plays a big part in the problem.
In an interview with The Associated Press, John Linc Stine said his agency is developing a voluntary program to encourage farmers to help reduce sediment that muddies the rivers and threatens to transform Lake Pepin — a scenic wide spot on the Mississippi — into a bog in coming years. He acknowledged that farmers who don't want to clean up their runoff won't have to.
"The fact that agriculture is exempt under the federal Clean Water Act, that's something we can't change," he said.
In a wide-ranging interview, the state's top pollution watchdog also said he believes copper-nickel mining in northeastern Minnesota can be done responsibly. He said he's not inclined to get his agency closely involved with frac sand mining in southeastern Minnesota. And he defended Gov. Mark Dayton's push to streamline the MPCA's environmental permitting process.
Stine became commissioner of the MPCA on May 9. Two weeks into his new job, Stine still hasn't moved into the corner office of his predecessor, Paul Aasen, who left for a job with the city of Minneapolis and recommended his deputy's promotion. Stine, 54, has spent most of his career in state government, including high-level posts in the Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Department of Health.
Cutting sediment in Minnesota's largest rivers is one of the MPCA's top current goals. The public comment period on a draft plan closes next week, but environmentalists have already criticized them as weak on one of the leading sources of that sediment, agricultural runoff.
Stine said the voluntary certification program being developed by his agency with the state and federal agriculture departments to reward farmers who reduce their runoff can make a difference. He said every successful environmental quality program includes a strong voluntary component. Farmers who voluntarily use the best management practices ought to be recognized for it, and doing so will provide peer pressure for other farmers to sign up, he said.
Stine also defended how the MPCA is spending the extra sales tax money it gets under the state's Legacy Amendment, which funds environmental, outdoors and cultural projects. Critics say the agency's focus has been too much on collecting data and doing studies, and too little on actually cleaning up lakes and streams. Stine said the data his agency is collecting on the state's watersheds is critical to understand where its energy needs to go.
"First you have to know where you stand," he said. "Then you fund and support actions that will, in a targeted way, improve water quality and watersheds around the state."
Proposed copper, nickel and precious metals mining in northeastern Minnesota is another contentious issue facing the MPCA. Backers say the mining will bring an economic boom to a depressed corner of the state, while critics fear it will be an environmental disaster.
Stine said economic development can happen while still protecting the environment. But he acknowledged that environmentalists have a point when they say mining these metals has caused serious problems elsewhere because they're bound up in sulfur-bearing minerals that can generate toxic acidic runoff.
"The legacy of mining activities cannot be ignored when you consider the permitting of future mining activities," Stine said.
The proposed PolyMet mine near Hoyt Lakes is farthest in development. The Environmental Protection Agency rejected PolyMet Mining Corp.'s original environmental impact statement as inadequate, and revisions have taken longer than expected, with the next version now due in early 2013. The DNR is the lead state agency on the environmental review, but Stine said the MPCA is involved because of the air and water quality standards PolyMet must meet.
"They believe — and I don't disagree with them yet — that they'll be able to design treatment technologies that will satisfy our water quality standards," he said.
Stine said he sees only a limited role for the MPCA in an emerging mining issue — frac sand mining in southeastern Minnesota. It's been dealt with primarily as a local issue so far, and Stine said he doesn't envision that changing.
He said the silica sand sought by oil and gas companies that use it for hydraulic fracturing in other states is similar to sand and gravel that have long been mined in Minnesota, and has always been regulated locally. He said the MPCA and health department are providing advice to local governments that seek it.
Another major challenge is expected when the EPA tightens its standards for ozone and fine particles. Minnesota complies with current federal standards but may not with the new rules.
If that happens, Stine said Minnesota could have to enact tough restrictions seen in other areas. He noted that Milwaukee and Chicago don't let trucks drive into the core cities.
"We've got to get our particulate matter and our ozone numbers lower before that happens," he said.
One of Dayton's top priorities for the MPCA was streamlining its often-slow environmental permitting process, and the goal is now to process them within 150 days. Stine said that doesn't have to conflict with his agency's mandate to protect air and water.
"You can streamline and tighten up the timelines but you never compromise on the standards. That's the way you assure that the environment is protected," he said.