Where they stand: 8 bills our environment reporters are watching at the Capitol

Monticello nuclear plant
Xcel Energy's Monticello Nuclear Generating Plant is seen in June 2012.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News 2012

Updated: May 21, 2018 | Posted: May 18, 2018

Environmental issues haven't gotten the most attention at the state Capitol this legislative session, but many important issues are still in play. Republicans control both the House and Senate, while DFL Gov. Mark Dayton holds the veto pen — and he has two weeks from the time he gets the bills passed in the final days of the session to decide whether to wield it.

In the past, legislation related to the environment has been part of the final give-and-take, which sometimes can lead to the types of compromises that concern interest groups. This year was no different. Republicans who control the Legislature decided to wrap many major policy and spending initiatives into one big bill — called an omnibus spending bill — and they didn't release the final version of the bill until they voted on it the night before they adjourned. That made it hard for the members of the public and interest groups to track exactly what was in it.

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Here's some of the legislation we're watching.

1) Cost recovery for Xcel's nuclear plants

Update: This legislation was wrapped up into the omnibus bill. Gov. Dayton has two weeks from the time he gets the bills passed in the final days of the session to decide whether to sign or veto.

Xcel Energy is seeking a new process for recovering costs related to its nuclear plants, which are getting old and expensive to repair. Upgrades and repairs at the Monticello nuclear plant several years ago far exceeded what Xcel told state regulators they would be.

Xcel reasons that its nuclear plants are reliable, carbon-free energy sources and should be seen as more valuable to the state's electric grid. Without them, Xcel says, the utility would have to revert to less-clean sources like natural gas and coal.

The legislation faces opposition from the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, consumer groups and environmental groups, who are concerned this new pathway for recovering nuclear costs wouldn't do enough to protect consumers. Even though Dayton has expressed doubts about the legislation, Xcel has been a formidable dealmaker at the Capitol in the past. This is one to watch until the end.

—Elizabeth Dunbar

2) Nullifying wild rice sulfate standard

His canoe hidden in wild rice, Bruce Martineau poles to shore.
His canoe almost completely hidden in wild rice, Bruce Martineau poles to the shore of Deadfish Lake on the Fond du Lac reservation in northeast Minnesota on Sept. 5, 2017.
Dan Kraker | MPR News 2017

Update: The Legislature passed an amended version of the bills focused on the state rule aimed at regulating sulfate levels in waters where wild rice grows. The new language addresses ways to find cost-effective treatment of waters with high sulfate levels, and funds a work group to come up with solutions. The bill has been sent to Gov. Dayton for approval or veto.

Republicans and some DFLers want to get rid of Minnesota's sulfate standard, which was adopted in 1973 but has rarely been enforced. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency tried to update the rule only for it to be rejected earlier this year by an administrative law judge.

Sulfate can convert to sulfide, which is toxic to wild rice and causes a host of other problems. But opponents of the rule argue the mining industry and some municipal wastewater plants would face costly upgrades if the rule were to remain in place.

Less-expensive water treatment solutions are on the horizon, but legislative and legal disputes must be settled first before those solutions can be fully explored.

Dayton vetoed the bill to get rid of the sulfate standard, so the question is whether lawmakers who supported that bill can get his administration to agree to some action on the rule before the deadline. Another one to watch until the end.

—Elizabeth Dunbar

3) Buffer tax credit

Update: This legislation was wrapped up into the omnibus bill. Gov. Dayton has two weeks from the time he gets the bills passed in the final days of the session to decide whether to sign or veto.

Dayton and Republicans in the Legislature agree farmers should get a tax credit for planting buffer strips of permanent vegetation along streams and ditches to filter pollution from farm fields, but they don't agree on the funding source for the tax break.

The Legislature wants the $50-per-acre credit to come from the Clean Water Fund, which gets funding from the sales tax approved by Minnesota voters in 2008. Dayton wants the tax credit to be paid from the general fund.

This is one disagreement the governor pointed to when vetoing the tax bill on Thursday. This issue will likely be in play until the end of the session.

—Dan Gunderson

4) Nitrogen fertilizer rules

Water flows into a ditch
Water from a farm field with a tile drainage system is pumped into a ditch near Barnesville, Minn., on April 25, 2016. Water from systems like this one can carry a lot of nitrates from fertilizer.
Ann Arbor Miller | MPR News 2016

Update: Legislative agriculture committees passed a resolution that would delay adoption of a nitrogen fertilizer rule until after the next legislative session. However, a house committee staff member said it is up to the committee chair to enact the resolution, so the rule delay approved by resolution will likely take effect only if Governor Dayton vetoes the Omnibus Agriculture bill.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture is finalizing rules to reduce the use of nitrogen fertilizer in agriculture to protect groundwater from nitrate contamination. The Legislature has adopted this provision: "The commissioner of agriculture shall not adopt water resource protection requirements under subdivision 2 for nitrogen fertilizer unless the water resource protection requirements are specifically approved by law."

The Agriculture Department is on record opposing the provision saying it encroaches on the rulemaking responsibilities of the executive branch. Republican lawmakers argue they are trying to prevent regulations that don't reflect legislative intent.

This is a complicated issue that's worth watching until the end.

—Dan Gunderson

5) Road salt certification

Update: The road salt bill did not pass and was not included in the final omnibus bill.

Chloride in road salt is permanently polluting lakes, rivers and streams in Minnesota. Some of that salt is applied by private contractors, who worry that reducing salt use will lead to a slip-and-fall lawsuit.

A bipartisan bill would limit lawsuit liability for road salt applicators who get trained in "smart salting" techniques through a voluntary certification program.

This is one of those smaller pieces of legislation that could end up in a final deal at the Capitol.

—Kirsti Marohn

6) 3M settlement

 3M in St. Paul, Minn.
This undated photo shows the 3M campus in St. Paul.
Marlin Levison | Star Tribune via AP

Update: This legislation was wrapped up into the omnibus bill. Gov. Dayton has two weeks from the time he gets the bills passed in the final days of the session to decide whether to sign or veto.

A bill passed by the House sets guidelines on the $720 million the state of Minnesota received — after legal fees — from 3M in a settlement over water contamination in the east metro.

The bill creates a water quality and sustainability account and requires regular reports to the Legislature on how the money is spent. It also requires state agencies to create a website where east metro residents can get information on well advisories.

It's unclear whether the bill will clear remaining hurdles before the deadline. Stay tuned.

—Kirsti Marohn

7) White Bear Lake

White Bear Lake
White Bear Lake
Caroline Yang for MPR 2012

Update: Gov. Dayton has allowed the bill to become law without his signature.

Both the House and Senate passed bills that prohibit the Department of Natural Resources from enforcing a judge's ruling related to White Bear Lake's water levels.

The judge said the DNR failed to protect the lake from over-pumping and ordered a freeze on groundwater permits within 5 miles of the lake. The order would require watering and development restrictions if the lake drops below a certain level.

The DNR plans to appeal the judge's decision. Will a version of this legislation end up in a final agreement between legislators and Dayton?

—Kirsti Marohn

8) Bill easing approval of oil pipelines

Update: Gov. Dayton vetoed the bill, saying in a letter to House Speaker Kurt Daudt that "the PUC is the appropriate venue" to determine whether the pipeline project should move forward.

Republican lawmakers moved to greenlight the Line 3 oil pipeline being proposed by Enbridge Energy, and have sent a bill to Dayton. But the governor has promised to veto the legislation, as it pre-empts the process going on at the Public Utilities Commission. The commission is slated to decide on a Certificate of Need for the project next month.

At this point, the bill is seen more as a symbolic gesture of support for the project and isn't likely to end up in any final agreement between Dayton and GOP lawmakers.

—Elizabeth Dunbar