The Minnesota Senate heard testimony from a scientist at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) that she was silenced and reprimanded when she tried to find the source of persistent chemicals contaminating drinking water in the east metro area.
The scientist suspected that 3M Co. was the source of the PFCs, or perfluorochemical compounds, in drinking water, and she appealed to Commissioner Sheryl Corrigan to be able to continue her work to protect the public from these chemicals.
Corrigan, a former manager for 3M who still owns $20,000 in 3M stock, reportedly told the scientist to cease her research into the source of PFCs. The scientist is suing the MPCA in a “whistle-blower” case.
This is not an isolated incident. In fact, it reveals a disturbing pattern of bias in favor of private business interests over the public good. Although families from inner cities, suburbs, farms and small towns of Minnesota count on the MPCA to keep us safe from poisons in our air and water, the MPCA has too often put industry interests ahead of science and in front of public health.
Take, for example, the MPCA’s process for setting limits on mercury pollution in Minnesota lakes. As most of us know, mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin. It affects the brain, particularly in children and in the unborn fetus, resulting in brain damage even in very small doses. It takes only a fraction of a teaspoon of mercury emitted into the air to contaminate a lake, and the mercury concentrates more than a million times in fish that swim in the lake.
By law, the MPCA is now required to make a plan to reduce mercury in lakes to a safe level, focusing on air pollution, which is the major source of mercury in Minnesota waters. The first draft for this mercury plan, known as the total maximum daily load (TMDL) study, set clear deadlines for mercury pollution reduction, primarily from utilities that burn coal and emit mercury.
So far, so good.
But before the draft was sent out for public comment, the MPCA allowed industry interest groups to “review” the proposed mercury reduction targets. MPCA management canceled appointments and refused to meet with environmentalists seeking access to the same information.
The result? The MPCA took its instructions from industry and removed the deadlines for mercury reduction from its TMDL study. Without deadlines for mercury reduction, coal plants and other polluters could not be held accountable for mercury emissions until 2035.
Decades from now, fish in our lakes will still be contaminated with mercury and will still be dangerous to eat. Nearly every lake in Minnesota tested for mercury is contaminated. Families of color, low-income families and anglers who rely on fish for protein are at greatest risk of mercury poisoning.
The MPCA’s catering to polluters’ interests over the public interest does not stop there.
University of California-Berkeley Prof. Tyrone Hayes has developed a national reputation for his research on pesticides and frog deformities, which often shed light on human birth defects and miscarriages.
According to Hayes, in 2004 Corrigan canceled a presentation hosted by the MPCA when the professor refused to remove the words “atrazine” and “pesticide” from his talk. The pesticide atrazine, in concentrations high enough to produce female ovaries in male frogs, is now found in Minnesota waters from Lake Calhoun to the Whitewater River. Again, the MPCA has chosen censorship over science, even if the science could protect the health of our children.
The MPCA’s record in limiting pollution from individual industries also reveals a trend away from environmental protection and public health. The MPCA routinely rejects environmental review and approves emissions, whether for a huge tire-burning plant or an oil refinery with repeated violations.
Instead of a pollution control agency, the MPCA has become a pollution permitting agency, measuring its success by how efficiently each industry gets its permit rather than by the purity of our waters and the safety of the air we breathe.
Minnesota used to be an environmental leader—a leadership born out of our appreciation for the outdoors, good health, and a recognition of the importance of the environment to our quality of life. We are the land of more than 10,000 lakes with a tourism industry of more than $9 billion.
Unfortunately, you don’t have to look far now to find states that are surpassing Minnesota in the area of environmental protection. Right next door, Wisconsin has set tough new standards on power-plant emissions.
Like the Bush administration in Washington, Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s MPCA has given industries privileged influence in determining if pollutants will be controlled. The MPCA has blocked investigations and rejected science needed to protect the public health from toxic chemicals in Minnesota’s air and waters.
To change course, Minnesotans must hold our governor accountable and call upon him to restore the mission of the MPCA. Instead of protecting polluters, the MPCA must use science and law to protect our children, our air and our water from the effects of pollution.
State Rep. Keith Ellison, DFL-Minneapolis, is the board chair of Environmental Justice Advocates of Minnesota.