3M and PFC groundwater contamination in Minnesota

Former regulator wants to bring people together around clean water

Ducks take advantage of a floating barrier.
Ducks take advantage of a floating barrier that has been set up to indicate the infected area and to contain disturbance by the scheduled lake treatment on Turtle Lake on Aug. 28, 2016.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News 2016

John Linc Stine's tenure as commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency ended in January. But after four decades in state government, he's not giving up on improving water quality in the state's beloved lakes, rivers and streams.

John Linc Stine
John Linc Stine, executive director of the nonprofit Freshwater organization, sits in his office on Monday in St. Paul.
Elizabeth Dunbar | MPR News

Now, he's moved to the private sector, leading a nonprofit dedicated to water education and policy.

Stine said his new role as executive director of St. Paul-based Freshwater — formerly known as the Freshwater Society — will focus on conserving and preserving the state's water resources.

This week, we asked him about whether he thinks the state can make meaningful progress on water quality. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How will your new job be different from working in state government?

For 40 years I worked inside state government at the Department of Natural Resources and the Health Department and at the Pollution Control Agency. I was really steeped in the regulatory process of getting state policies implemented on individual landowners and businesses and how that would play out.

I really was looking to do something that would be more inspirational — something that not only for myself as inspiration, but also just trusting in people.

I'm a Minnesotan to the core — born here, raised here, educated here — and I know that people here have a good-natured desire to do the right thing for the environment, but certainly for our water. It's the most valuable thing that we can claim, when you travel across the world: Minnesota has these wonderful lakes and these beautiful rivers and Lake Superior is the beginning of the Great Lakes system where 20 percent of the world's fresh water is.

So that's one of the reasons I really was pleased to land here, because it's an easy inspiring conversation for me to have with anyone.

Looking back, what were some of the highlights of working in state government?

Steve Vietor points out the Riverland Community College's wind turbine.
Steve Vietor, who leads the renewable energy program at Riverland Community College in Albert Lea, points out the college's wind turbine to then-MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine and then-Lt. Gov. Tina Smith during a tour on Feb. 27, 2017.
Elizabeth Dunbar | MPR News 2017

I started as a student worker at the DNR. I worked on a trail plan and then I worked on flood insurance studies, but most of my career I've been a water regulator in one form or another.

I worked as a hydrologist at the DNR for 25 years, and much of what I did there was around shoreline development and public water impact regulation and water-use regulation.

The 1997 flood was a huge learning curve for me. We got a lot of funding from the Legislature, which we spent on communities across the state to mitigate flood damages and reduce future flooding damages, which are kind of showing their presence today. Now, communities around the state are really more resilient now than they ever were prior to that '97 flood.

Then I moved to the Health Department for six years and had a couple of great experiences there working on environmental health. One was the statewide smoking ban.

There were a few bars around the state that fought with us over whether they could allow smoking in their bars under the guise of calling it theater or a theatrical production. The Legislature allowed people to smoke in a theater — so, if the Guthrie or any other theater like that needed to have cigarette smoking as part of their production, that would be allowed.

The bars thought they should get the same privilege, which we had to deal with and go to court. Ultimately, that was resolved and I was proud to say that we now have smoke-free establishments all across Minnesota, which has been great for worker health and for our food and beverage industry around the state.

I also worked at the health department on all the perfluorinated compounds that 3M and others disposed of and how those impacted our groundwater systems in the Twin Cities.

Officials discuss 3M settlement over PFC contamination in groundwater
Then-Minnesota Pollution Control Agency head John Linc Stine talks about the state's settlement with 3M over PFC contamination on Feb. 21, 2018.
Tim Nelson | MPR News 2018

That's carried on now, with the emergence of those compounds all across the nation at different sites. So we were early innovators, if you will, in Minnesota on that and got a lot of work done to define the potential impacts of some of those compounds on human health.

And the last thing I'll say about my time at the Health Department was the H1N1 novel influenza virus — that dangerous flu that came along in 2009 and truly did pose what could be a harbinger of future epidemic challenges for this state on the public health front.

Then I worked at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for about seven years under Gov. Mark Dayton and really enjoyed the opportunity to work with businesses and communities around the state on wastewater treatment, solid waste management, clean air and a wide range of other topics, not all of which were without controversy — most of which had quite a bit of controversy, actually.

I enjoyed that time, but I have told many people I've had my fill of being a regulator. I can look forward now to doing work that's more inspiring and more collaborative than setting the floor for environmental performance.

What's challenging about being a regulator?

Almost everybody who comes to the table would like you to do what they want you to do. Businesses want their permits. Communities want greater control. I could pick out any range of examples from feedlots to mines to waste treatment facilities to incinerators to landfills.

I think the most challenging part of being a regulator is that it's like being a police officer: People want you there, but they don't want you there in their life.

The hardest thing about being a regulator is knowing that you're needed but unwelcome.

That, on a personal level, plays on people inside the system more than you might really ever imagine. It puts a lot of stress on your mind when you're trying to make the right decision, follow the law, and yet you know people are very dissatisfied with your decision.

What's an example of a tough decision you had to make?

The proposed Catalpa hog feedlot in southeastern Minnesota — and deciding against granting a permit.

That farm was not singularly responsible for nitrates in the groundwater, but at some point, people have to own up to the need to look comprehensively at challenges with our groundwater system.

That really was an agonizing decision for me. I knew there wasn't going to be a perfect result, no matter what. I'm glad that the Environmental Quality Board in Gov. Tim Walz's new administration is following up.

It's projects like that where you know that the system is imperfect. But there is no perfect system, either.

The understanding people have is, 'We paid taxes and we have these laws and these rules and we expect a perfect result.' The reality is: We don't have clean water everywhere in this state because we never probably had it to begin with, and we're never going to get it with the regulatory system that exists.

It's going to take much more than regulation to have clean water.

You and former DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr both approved permits for the controversial PolyMet copper-nickel mine planned for northern Minnesota. How are you looking back at those decisions?

Commissioner Tom Landwehr answers questions
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr speaks to reporters during a press conference as permits for the PolyMet Mining proposed copper-nickel mine are on display, Nov. 1, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2018

In general, I had strayed away from deciding what I thought personally was right and was wrong, because if I did that, I would have doubted every decision.

Some people might think I felt one way or another way about the PolyMet decision. I viewed the system as what it is. It's right because that's what we approved.

So, making the decision along the lines of those requirements, I never felt like I was making the wrong decision. I knew I was making a hard decision that people were not going to like.

But I often would tell people, 'If you don't like this decision, your misplaced frustration is on me. You need to change the system in which this decision got made.'

I was often frustrated that people focused on the episode, which is like, 'Am I getting to pass Go on the Monopoly board or not,' whereas people should really be asking the question, 'Is the Monopoly board the right board?'

Do you believe copper and nickel can be mined in Minnesota without water pollution?

Closed LTV Steel taconite plant
In this 2016 photo, the closed LTV Steel taconite plant is abandoned near Hoyt Lakes, Minn. The prospect remains of returning the site to life as part of Minnesota's first copper-nickel mine owned by PolyMet.
Jim Mone | AP 2016

I do. The mining is of copper, nickel, palladium, gold — those resources are going to mined somewhere in the world. There's an argument to be made that it could be done somewhere else with much more devastating environmental effects on that place.

So, at some level, we are global citizens and we have to ask ourselves, 'Do we have the mindset and the temperament to control pollution and environmental damage here, more than somewhere else?'

I think that's a fair question. I think that people should debate it. I believe that it can be done here. And I believe that the design of that mine was in cooperation with our requirements when I worked at the MPCA. I believe that their design was sufficient to protect water quality.

What's the biggest environmental threat to Minnesota?

Consumption. People and our desire to have a convenient lifestyle are going to consume more resources than the planet can produce. And we're not yet in a system that provides materials that can be repurposed and reused in their natural state.

So we're still extractive in our consumption of fuels, our consumption of products and basically our transportation and our air quality. Everything is hinged around our consumptive lifestyle.

MPCA commissioner John Linc Stine
Then-Minnesota Pollution Control Agency commissioner John Linc Stine, with state Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger, discussed the findings of a report on air pollution in the Twin Cities released July 13, 2015.
Elizabeth Dunbar | MPR News 2015

We need to have a more sustainable system in place for materials, for energy, for transportation, for our lives — and none of us is free from that.

We all have this challenge as a society, so I'm not trying to say there are bad actors that should just clean up their act and everything would get better. It's all of us.

Is Minnesota in a good position to make progress on problems like water quality and climate change?

Minnesotans are keenly interested in making a difference, and we believe in the possibility of making a difference.

I think that people here genuinely agree that if we focus on a problem together we can solve it. The Minnesota Miracle under Gov. Wendell Anderson in the mid-'70s and the 2008 Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment are examples.

People have the will to make a political and a social difference here. Part of that is mobilizing the voice of our people statewide, because if we divide ourselves urban versus rural or metro versus non-metro and we don't focus on our shared challenge, then I think we lose that opportunity of having a common voice.

So that's the challenge that I think faces us, is connecting people across Minnesota rather than trying to divide ourselves. We need to really unite.

What are you most looking forward to in leading an environmental nonprofit?

The fun part is really getting more people engaged in what it means to accomplish our mission, which is to value and conserve and preserve the water of Minnesota.

I also like empowering voices of people who can tell their stories about what they've done to succeed. Even if they didn't fully succeed, but they got part of the way there, that's encouraging too, whether it's with groundwater or on a lake.

Sometimes I think we get focused on how far we have to go, but we have 60 percent of our state that has the water quality that we value. So all is not lost. We have a great story to tell in Minnesota, and we should celebrate that.