There was a time in this country when our big rivers were open sewers and smokestacks poured pollution into the air.
Over the last 40 years, we have made significant progress in reducing pollution. Minnesota has been an environmental leader—enacting anti-pollution laws and rules, and then enforcing them—and many citizens took pride in that leadership.
Now, I believe, many policymakers are in full retreat from any sort of environmental leadership. Every day we see efforts in Congress and in the Minnesota Legislature to loosen regulation and decrease enforcement, to deny the evidence of science and to slash funding for research and environmental education.
These efforts often are presented as necessary to reduce deficits and create jobs, but they would reverse the environmental progress we have made.
Worthy goal, but dangers for environment
A new law changes how the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Department of Natural Resources and other agencies issue environmental permits. The law has the worthy goal of speeding up permits, when they are justified. But it also changes current practices to allow potential polluters—mines, factories, developments of all kinds—greater influence over Environmental Impact Statements.
Maybe the governmental agencies will have the staff and budgets and courage to insist that the new environmental review procedure is as diligent and thorough as the current process. But I suspect some of the people cheering the new law hope future reviews—in lots of little ways—will be easier on permit applicants and less rigorous in protecting the environment.
Two other rule-relaxation efforts are under way. One would put a two-year freeze on all new rules to protect water. The goal of the freeze is pre-determined: An analysis concluding we already have too many rules. A second bill would lead to more-lenient phosphorus limits for Lake Pepin.
Anti-science, anti-research attitude
Among policymakers, we see evidence of an anti-science, anti-research, anti-education attitude. Consider this:
• A state senator was quoted saying that he believes global warming is a “farce” and a “fallacy” and that he opposes state-funded projects that relate to climate.
• A House sponsor of one of the bills asserts there is no danger we will run out of any natural resources.
• The Clean Water Council, of which I am a member, recommended spending a mere $900,000 over two years for “education and civic engagement” activities out of a $176 million budget. But even that $900,000 has been dropped from the appropriation bill likely to be enacted.
At the Freshwater Society, our mission is educating and inspiring people to value, conserve and protect water resources. Once that kind of sentiment infused a lot of our public policy. Now Minnesota is at risk of joining other states in a race to the bottom—in the pollution we accept, and in the scientific evidence we ignore.
– Gene Merriam, the president of the Freshwater Society, wrote this column for the society’s newsletter. Merriam is a former state senator and former commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources.