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The New MPCA Philosophy and Its Impact
By Mary Losure
May 15, 1998
Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4

One in a series of reports about Minnesota Pollution Control Agency issues

Some people believe that fundamental changes in the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's philosophy is leaving the environment vulnerable to polluters. The agency says that its less combative, more collaborative approach is keeping pace with the times.

ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVIST LESLIE DAVIS AND HIS FRIEND DAN MCCARTHY stand on a bank above the Mississippi River. Below them is a small lake surrounded by a marsh, a backwater that connects with the main channel of the river.

The two men are on an unofficial scouting trip, checking out containment efforts at a site where last summer, an employee of the Koch Refinery discovered gasoline seeping out of the ground and into the backwater. McCarthy peers through a spotting scope at a bright red sign at the edge of the water.

McCarthy: Danger, no smoking, no open flames, no sparks.

There is a patch of bare, cleared earth that marks an underground collection system Koch installed to intercept the gasoline. Red and yellow plastic containment booms spread across the water. Leslie Davis, who heads the environmental group Earth Protector, is not impressed.

Davis: That's pretty rinky dink, look at that stick holding up the boom right over there. Huh! Anything can leak right under it, couldn't it Dan? Like, look right over here.
McCarthy: Take a picture of it, Leslie.

The gasoline that hit this Mississippi backwater traveled more than a mile underground. It came from Koch Refinery tank leaks discovered in 1992. Although the leaks themselves were quickly repaired, hundreds of thousands of gallons had already escaped, and they have been spreading underground ever since. Only after gasoline nearly hit the Mississippi last summer did the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) begin ordering aggressive cleanup of that and numerous other spills and leaks. Now, up to 1 million gallons of gasoline are floating free and dissolved in the groundwater under the refinery.

Critics such as Ginny Yingling, Minnesota director of the Sierra Club, say the MPCA's lax enforcement stems from a new philosophy at the agency - that industries are customers to be served rather than challenged.

Yingling: What we're seeing is a culture that they call "customer service," which is all fine and good when they're talking about providing prompt, friendly, courteous service, but when it means you are accommodating people who are not following the rules, that's a corrupt philosophy.

The MPCA relied heavily on consultants hired by Koch, who predicted the gasoline would move much more slowly than it actually did. Critics say a trusting, cooperative approach simply doesn't work for companies like Koch, which is under federal investigation here and in other states.

The MPCA is also under fire on another front. The agency's mission is to protect the state's environment, but its officials say it's not up to them to stop environmentally questionable projects. Their job is to write permits that will reduce any environmental damage.

Audio from videotape: Notice the shrapnel fence that surrounds the facility because so many things are emitted quickly from here, you literally have explosions and things fly out of the machine and quickly into the surrounding areas.

Minneapolis City Council member Joe Biernat watches a video of a giant metal shredder known as a Kondirator. The machines are five stories tall and emit high levels of noise, vibration, and dust. A scrap iron company plans to build one on the city's Mississippi riverfront - an area the state and federal government both say needs less industry and more green space. The city has appealed to the MPCA to stop the project, but the agency plans to let it move ahead with minimal environmental studies. MPCA officials say the city's objections to the Kondirator are a local land use issue, not the purview of the MPCA. Council member Biernat says the agency is abdicating its responsibility.

Biernat: The PCA is a department of over 900 people. The city of Minneapolis has an environmental management team of about six people. We don't have the personnel to be out there watching to make sure that it is in fact complying with the environmental regulations that PCA said it would. And if it's out of compliance what do we do? Do we have the ability to shut that machine down? I would say we wouldn't.

Critics say the MPCA has changed from an overall environmental watchdog to an agency focused on issuing permits without considering the larger consequences of the proposals it approves. Critics say the agency has used this kind of tunnel vision not just on the Kondirator, but on the highly charged issue of large scale animal feedlots. Kris Sigford of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy says the MPCA has issued permit after permit without once requiring studies to address the cumulative effects of pollution from large feedlots.

Sigford: We have four major river basins severely affected by feedlots, we have folks that are breathing hydrogen sulfide at 18,000 parts per billion, which is 600 times over the standard, and yet we've never found that there might be a potentially significant effect down the road when these things are undergoing environmental review. I think that process is just out of whack.

Critics also say the agency is less willing than it has been in the past to write tough environmental regulations. In the 1980s, over strenuous objections from industry, Minnesota imposed strict standards on emissions that cause acid rain. An agency staff member, who declined to be interviewed, says under the current administration, efforts to write standards on toxic air pollutants have "had the rug pulled out from under them." "We were a leader in the past, we're not a leader on the issue of toxic air pollutants," the staff member says, noting that many other states now have such rules in place.

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency commissioner Peder Larson insists the agency is still out in front when it comes to environmental protection. He says while it's true the agency takes a less confrontational stance with industry now than in the past, it is not soft on companies that pollute. He says the charges the agency should have cracked down long ago on the Koch refinery have the benefit of hindsight.

Larson: We had best scientific evidence. We're not perfect and it's difficult to predict what's going to happen 140 feet under the surface of the ground. We did find the petroleum. It didn't get into the Mississippi. It didn't have any significant effect on the environment or human heath. We've got the situation being cleaned up right now.

Larson says the agency has not narrowed its focus. He says although critics may say development projects need to considered in a larger environmental context, those decisions must rest with local officials, not the MPCA.

Larson: The Legislature isn't going to give us land use planning authority. It's just the way Minnesota government works and government works across the country.

On the issue of big feedlots, Larson says the agency has taken tough action behind the scenes that has stopped some feedlot proposals, and is now doing studies that will look at the cumulative effect of large feedlots.

Larson insists the agency's current philosophy - working with, rather than confronting, industry is effective - and is the way of the future.

Larson: Collaborative processes are what we need more of in order to address today's problems. That may not have been true of the problems that we had to address when we were created in the 60s and 70s, but this is Vice President Al Gore's charge to America, to protect the environment through collaborative processes.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is now in the midst of a massive reorganization, moving the organization toward this new philosophy. But if high profile problems like the contamination from feedlots and the Koch refinery continue to surface, that philosophy is likely to be challenged.