Enviro issues on tap at Capitol: Recycling, pollinators, plastic soap beads

Despite Gov. Mark Dayton's instructions that this year's legislative session will be what calls  the "unsession," lawmakers and state agency officials have come up with a long list of environmental issues that could be discussed at the Capitol this year.

I've compiled a list of some of the issues discussed during a forum Monday organized by the Minnesota Environmental Initiative. As with every legislative session, details are still being worked out behind the scenes, and it's possible some of these issues won't even come up given the tight deadlines. Several hearings are being held ahead of Feb. 25, the official legislative start date, including recycling and waste management, financial assurance for copper-nickel mining and the health effects of air pollution.

Recycling and waste management: A House committee holds a hearing on this topic on Tuesday afternoon. Here's the context: Minnesota's recycling rates have flattened in recent years. An MPCA study found that a lot of compost is ending up in landfills along with a lot of recyclable material. Even if there's agreement on moving toward recycling and composting more of our waste, there's bound to be a fight on how best to accomplish that goal. One idea is to implement a 10-cent deposit for beverage containers, similar to what Iowa and Michigan have. Several environmental groups are pushing for a deposit law, but beverage manufacturers and other interest groups hate the idea, and there's bound to be some push back from metro-area consumers who currently recycle beverage containers via curb-side pickup programs. Former state Rep. Paul Gardner, who directs an organization called Recycling Reinvented, will be pushing a different idea; an industry-led recycling system that looks to offer more consistency in recycling programs across the state. Gardner will speak about his group's proposal at the hearing.

Pollinators: Lawmakers from both parties are concerned about pollinators such as honeybees and Monarch butterflies. They point to two causes for concern: loss of habitat and pesticides. You can expect to hear about both issues at the Capitol. Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, who chairs the House environment finance committee, held a hearing in December on the issue. People who testified had grave concerns about a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. We expect to hear more details after the Minnesota Department of Agriculture releases a report this week.

Plastic soap beads: Those tiny beads in facial cleansers are showing up in the Great Lakes and could impact fish. Both Wagenius and Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, said the beads probably aren't necessary. Wagenius said to expect to see legislation on the beads this session. Several personal care product companies are already phasing them out.

Streamlining permitting: Gov. Mark Dayton has pushed in the past to streamline environmental permitting so that companies don't have to wait as long for state agency decisions. MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine said at the forum that the vast majority of permits are now completed in 150 days, but he said the governor is interested in taking that a step further so that most permits are completed within 90 days. It isn't clear what form such legislation would take, but Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, said he will work to ensure Minnesota's environmental review process remains robust and thorough.

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Legacy Amendment: It's not a budget year, but appropriations for the outdoors portion of the Legacy Amendment come up on an annual basis, and the Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Council has sent its funding requests to lawmakers. Wagenius and Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, said they expect that bill will see only minor changes and will be approved within the first week or so of the session. We're also likely to see more discussion about how to get the four Legacy funds to work together more. And on the clean water portion of the amendment, state agency officials are working to come up with a roadmap that would help measure the results of Legacy spending.

Bonding for DNR infrastructure: The bonding bill could be the biggest thing that passes out of the Legislature this session. Watch for a proposal to use bonding to upgrade some of the many buildings the DNR oversees.

Mining: At this point there's been no talk of legislation regarding copper-nickel mining, but Wagenius has called a hearing for Feb. 11 on financial assurance for PolyMet's proposed copper-nickel mine and processing facility near Hoyt Lakes.

Water: It's still unclear what legislation on water issues will come up, but Wagenius mentioned some interest in softening regulations on water reuse. Right now most treated wastewater is leaving the state via the Mississippi River, which doesn't help the state's groundwater supplies considering 75 percent of Minnesotans get their drinking water from the ground. The DNR is setting up groundwater management areas in three places where officials are concerned about groundwater quantity and quality. Nitrates contaminating drinking water is another problem that's coming up more often, so expect to see some discussion on that.