The MPCA’s budget items reveal an agency deeply immersed in efforts toward environmental equity or justice. Credit: MPCA / Creative Commons

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Among the Walz administration’s efforts, its proposed budget would allow the MPCA to beef up its enforcement of emissions standards — the lack of which, the agency says, often creates inequities.

This story originally appeared in MinnPost and was republished with permission. MinnPost is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization whose mission is to provide high-quality journalism for people who care about Minnesota.

In 2019, Gov. Tim Walz, through an executive order, created a panel dubbed the Climate Change Subcabinet, charged it with studying Minnesota’s climate policy and asked it to report back to him each year.

The group’s initial report, issued in December, is a 64-page document that outlines its tasks and provides some examples of how the state’s various agencies are addressing climate issues – including by building equity into their work, such as the Agriculture Department’s outreach efforts with new immigrant communities.

Indeed, the report refers to “equity” and “environmental justice” so many times that it prompts the question: What do those terms actually mean for the state as it tries to execute its environmental policies?

The climate group’s report, itself, provides an explanation of sorts, saying that its members are expected “to consider equity in our response to climate change in order to respond effectively to community needs and reduce existing disparities.”

That still leaves a lot unexplained, but some clues about what it all means can be found in the budget the Walz administration has put forth during the legislative session – specifically in the money set aside for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), the state’s main environmental regulatory body.

Explaining the concept

The MPCA’s budget items reveal an agency deeply immersed in efforts toward environmental equity or justice.

The proposed budget would “ensure that Minnesotans, including community and governmental partners, understand the meaning of ‘environmental justice’ and ‘environmental justice areas of concern,’” Andrea Cournoyer, the agency’s assistant director of communications, told me in an email. Furthermore, she said, it would allow the agency to hire more people to enforce emissions standards, especially in areas “disproportionately impacted by air pollution”; and to purchase new equipment to monitor air pollution.

Meanwhile, in a written summary of its budget requests, the agency explains that environmental justice means “communities of color, indigenous communities, and low-income communities enjoy a healthy environment and fair treatment with respect to the development, adoption, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”

The proposal would provide the MPCA with $384,000 in each of the next two years to beef up its enforcement of emissions standards – the lack of which, the agency says, often creates inequities. “These consequences are especially true for low-income and diverse communities and neighborhoods which disproportionately have pollution-heavy industrial facilities,” the agency writes in a summary of that proposal. “Once a serious violation occurs, it takes considerable resources and time to rebuild community trust and bring the facility back into compliance.”

Finally, the budget would grant the MPCA $180,000, plus small annual appropriations, for air monitoring equipment that the agency says is key to addressing inequities. “Many air emission facilities are in former or current industrialized areas, which are often co-located within MPCA-designated environmental justice areas,” the agency explains. “Currently, hundreds of air emission facilities are located within MPCA defined environmental justice areas.”

Getting voices to the table

I talked with two MPCA officials who are involved with the Climate Change Subcabinet: Frank Kohlasch, the agency’s air quality program manager and the lead author of the current report; and Helen Waquiu, the agency’s director of public engagement and tribal liaison.

Above all, both said, the agency is committed to doing a better job of interacting with those who are affected by agency decisions.

Past injustices are real, Waquiu said, using as one example concerns about high mercury levels – generated by coal-burning utilities – that impact fisheries in lakes on Native American reservations. “How do we do things that don’t perpetuate that?” she asked. “How do we get those voices to the table to participate – those communities that rely on fishing. How do we adjust our policies so that those communities can consume more fish?”

Kohlasch said the longstanding agency practice of granting, say, a water permit for a project and then allowing some time for public feedback can be ineffective. “We want to move away from our history that, as environmental regulators, the only time to interact (with residents) is at the end of a regulatory process, when we draft a permit for an activity and we come out in the last 30 days and say, ‘Here it is! Do you have any questions?’” he said.

That permitting process can be fraught, especially when concerns over equity are factored in.

Last fall, for instance, the majority of the MPCA’s environmental justice advisory group resigned after regulators issued a key water permit to Enbridge Energy for its Line 3 oil pipeline, which cuts across northern Minnesota watersheds where Native Americans hunt, fish and harvest wild rice. In a letter to agency Commissioner Laura Bishop, the group characterized the move as a “clear violation of environmental justice” and said that “we cannot continue to legitimize and provide cover for the MPCA’s war on Black and brown people.”

The agency stood by its decision. Waquiu told me the advisory group continues to operate with its five remaining members and that “we are on a journey and definitely don’t have all of the answers and want to work with them.”

Beyond ethnicity

While the proposed Walz budget would enhance the MPCA’s work, the agency has been involved in equity measures for several years.

It already provides a mapping tool, for instance, that shows how air pollution affects populations in various regions of Minnesota. And it also requires an equity evaluation of planned projects.

Environmental justice, of course, also extends beyond groups defined by race or ethnicity. One recent equity evaluation, for instance, considered the environmental justice impacts of an emissions permit for a grain elevator in Redwood County. The MPCA’s primary concerns, in that case, were the possible environmental effects of emissions on an older population with modest incomes.

Last year, meanwhile, Walz signed off on a massive public-works package that included $270 million for upgrades to water treatment facilities, many of them in small, resource-poor towns that were concerned about the quality of their water.

Interestingly, the climate group’s report actually looks to one oft-marginalized group for inspiration and possible partnering – American Indian tribes, calling them “national leaders in climate change work.” (As this MinnPost story from last fall shows, solar panels now power large parts of the Red Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota).

As it moves forward, the MPCA will look for more ways to include public input on the projects it considers. The agency recently trained its air-permitting staff to help community members better understand the process and to participate in it.