Muddying the waters

What’s happening in Washington and St. Paul right now goes way beyond muddying waters, both in the literal sense of what is flowing into our waters and in the metaphoric sense of how politicians talk about protection and pollution. Both in Washington and in St. Paul, politicians are shutting down water protection. They are ditching regulations that protect lakes, rivers and drinking water and slashing funds for enforcement.

In Washington

One of the Trump administration’s first acts was to reverse a rule protecting streams from coal mining waste, especially acid mine run-off. The rule was complicated, requiring seven years of research and hearings and negotiations. Environmentalists said it didn’t go far enough, but it did make some steps toward protecting waterways. Now it’s gone. According to the Los Angeles Times:

“A rule intended to limit water pollution from coal mining has already been killed by Congress, which is now weighing whether to jettison rules that force gas drilling operations on federal land to capture more of the toxic methane they emit.”

That’s just the beginning.

The Trump budget proposes crippling cuts to funding and employees at the Environmental Protection Agency. The Republican line is that the federal EPA should shrink and let the states do the job. The cuts to EPA funding, however, mean cuts to the money the EPA gives to state agencies to function. Besides the direct cuts to money for state agencies, cutting EPA staffing means less technical assistance for states. Ron Meador noted that ” a fair amount of the EPA’s budget is passed along to state units, like Minnesota’s Pollution Control Agency, where it makes up about $25 million of the MPCA’s annual $200 million outlay.” The budget also proposes cutting funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative from $300 million to $10 million:

“Although that $300 million is distributed from the EPA budget, it’s really a pass-through; the money itself is specifically allotted by Congress for a wide range of projects throughout the basin, nearly all of them initiated locally and proposed for funding on a competitive basis.

“For example, in the last few years GLRI funds have backed a Duluth Community Action project to hire underemployed people and put them to work on a $600,000 program of habitat restoration along streams flowing to Lake Superior.

“Trout Unlimited got $100,000 for habitat upgrades along the Sucker River. The state’s Department of Natural Resources got $285,000 to inventory conditions along Superior tributaries as a prelude to a 25-year restoration plan.”

And in St. Paul

Now that Republicans control both houses of the Minnesota legislature, they plan to push back lots of environmental protection, including the crippling the stream buffer law, ending MPCA and DNR authority to make new rules, and sunsetting the environmental regulations now in effect.

The stream buffer law says that rivers and streams and ditches have to be protected with green strips of perennial plants to help filter out pollutants and run-off from farm fields. The Friends of the Mississippi River describes the legislation now making its way through the Minnesota legislature:

“The amendment (1466DE2) fundamentally transforms the law in several concerning ways:
“• Changing which waters are eligible, reducing required buffer protections for an estimated 48,000 miles of streams,
“• Delaying the deadline for remaining buffers by a year,
“• Removing local governments enforcement authority, and
“• Restricting enforcement to only those buffers established and maintained 100 percent through public funding.”

Another bill would end MPCA and DNR rule-making and roll back existing rules unless a future legislature specifically adopts them.

House File 551 (Green, Poston, Whelan, Erickson) wholly eliminates rulemaking authority for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

“Should the bill pass, each state agency would be barred from adopting new rules, amending existing rules or even repealing out-of-date rules in the future.

“In addition to stripping environmental agencies of future rulemaking authority, the bill calls for all existing rules to be automatically repealed in 2022 unless the legislature intervenes.”

I remember Tom Lehrer singing about pollution about 50 years ago:

Pollution, pollution!
You can use the latest toothpaste,
And then rinse your mouth
With industrial waste.

Our waters were in bad shape back then. Local, state and federal governments acted to clean up pollution and to protect rivers, lakes, streams and drinking water. We still have a long way to go — and we can’t afford to reverse direction and eliminate the hard-won protection put in place over the past half century.

What you can do:

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