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New environment commissioners talk climate change, water quality

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Newly announced DNR commissioner Sarah Strommen
Newly announced DNR commissioner Sarah Strommen offers remarks after Gov.-elect Tim Walz announces her appointment on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, in Hastings, Minn.
Elizabeth Dunbar | MPR News

Gov.-elect Tim Walz has appointed two women — a former suburban mayor and a former Best Buy executive — to oversee the two largest state agencies charged with looking out for Minnesota's environment and natural resources. 

While the new commissioners of the Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency don't officially start work until next week, Sarah Strommen and Laura Bishop have a few things on their minds: climate change, water quality and keeping the outdoors relevant. 

Strommen is the first woman to be appointed DNR commissioner. She's worked as an assistant commissioner at the agency and has also served as mayor of the city of Ramsey. Her resume also includes working for Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, a group that has opposed copper-nickel mining in northern Minnesota. 

One mining project — PolyMet, with a proposed mine near Babbitt, Minn., and a processing plant in Hoyt Lakes — has already earned state approval. But during a news conference Thursday announcing her new role, Strommen was asked about another copper-nickel mine proposed for northern Minnesota — Twin Metals, which would be built outside Ely — that could come across her desk. 

The LTV Steel processing plant,which was taken over by PolyMet Mining Corp.
The LTV Steel processing plant near Hoyt Lakes, Minn., which was taken over by PolyMet Mining Corp. to use as a copper-nickel processing plant.
Mesabi Daily News via AP File

"What I can tell you is clearly the Boundary Waters is a very special place for Minnesota," Strommen said. "As far as the agency's approach to regulatory process, there's statutes and rules that dictate how that process goes, there's public engagement and then there's science and data. So it will be about ensuring we have a good process."

Strommen, who oversaw the DNR's parks and trails and fish and wildlife divisions while serving as an assistant commissioner with the agency, said keeping Minnesota's lakes, rivers, forests and wildlife top of mind to its residents will be crucial to her work.

"Ensuring that people continue to have the connection to the outdoors, continue to understand why it's relevant to our quality of life in Minnesota," she said, "it's important for education, it's important for our economy, it's important for people's health. I think going forward that's a key challenge, long-term."

Losing a connection to the outdoors is the biggest threat to the state's natural resources, she said. Money collected from hunting and fishing licenses goes back into funding the DNR's conservation efforts, and state leaders have long been worried about a declining interest in outdoor recreation. 

In addition to its work on land use, wildlife and outdoor recreation, the DNR is one of several state agencies keeping tabs on Minnesota's water resources, and groundwater in particular. Surface water questions — covering pollution in lakes or streams, or whether a feedlot or factory poses risks to water — fall to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. 

Incoming Minnesota Pollution Control Agency commissioner Laura Bishop
Incoming Minnesota Pollution Control Agency commissioner Laura Bishop on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, in Hastings, Minn.
Elizabeth Dunbar | MPR News

New commissioner Laura Bishop, who oversaw sustainability efforts at Best Buy as its chief sustainability and corporate responsibility officer, said Thursday she's eager to dig in to water quality data and figure out where the state can make progress. 

In recent years, Minnesota's water quality has mostly worsened, thanks to pollutants ranging from farm runoff to road salt to chemicals from consumer products. Bishop said she hopes her background in business can improve the ways Minnesota approaches its water quality problems. 

"The piece that I bring is kind of that efficiency lens and bringing people together," she said, "so where there's overlap, let's get on the same page."

Bishop also pointed to climate change as another threat to water quality across the state, adding that increased temperatures and heavier rains are also a factor. 

"I don't think we can shy away from it," she said. "The climate is changing. We see it here in Minnesota." 

The Mississippi River and the Minnesota River come together in St. Paul.
The Mississippi River and the Minnesota River come together in between Mendota Heights and St. Paul on July 24, 2017.
Evan Frost | MPR News

While Minnesota is meeting its goals for transitioning to renewable energy, it has lagged in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from all sources, including transportation and agriculture. Bishop said the state needs to take the lead in changing that. 

"I think we're seeing the federal government start to walk away from some of the previous commitments," she said. "The state has always been a leader, and we should continue to lead."

Walz mentioned climate change when he introduced Bishop as the state's new MPCA commissioner, saying failing to address it would be irresponsible and would hurt the state's economy. But he added that state agencies need to do a better job working together with industry to find solutions to environmental problems.

"Regulatory humility," he called it. And went on: "That doesn't mean not doing our job, it means approaching these businesses with the spirit of what can we do together to make sure we have a safer, more sustainable planet, and you're still able to make money, prosper and create jobs."

Walz says that attitude also applies to agriculture. There are still hard feelings among farmers about how outgoing Gov. Mark Dayton's administration rolled out new regulations on buffers and fertilizer. 

"They weren't the end of the world," said Thom Petersen, Walz's pick for agriculture commissioner, "but it was kind of the way it was maybe rolled out." 

Petersen has been a lobbyist for the Minnesota Farmers Union and said Thursday that he's eager for a fresh start.

Walz announced his picks for environmental and agricultural commissioners Thursday along with several other cabinet posts, including human rights, human services, health and mediation. He plans to name seven other commissioners, including the leaders of commerce, public safety and revenue departments, on Friday.