Land of the Turd Brown Waters

Pawlenty talks green, but will he pay the tab?

That experience, says Sigford, illustrates how difficult and expensive it can be to fix polluted waters. The Minnesota River, she hastens to add, is something of a special case. Agriculture is the largest, most intractable cause of so-called "non-point source" water pollution in the state, and the Minnesota River's watershed lies almost entirely in farm country. Which is why the involvement of agricultural interests is so important.

For Pawlenty's clean water speech, Sigford observes, the commissioners of many of the relevant agencies were on hand, from the Department of Natural Resources to the Department of Health to the MPCA. "Pretty much all the upper folks were there, except for the Department of Agriculture. There was nobody at that level there from Ag. We can't do this without them, and it doesn't look like they were at the table."

However, there were plenty of industry representatives at the table for Pawlenty's big speech, which was delivered at a meeting of the Minnesota Environmental Initiative. Despite its name, the MEI is underwritten chiefly by big business, including some of the state's most notorious polluters, such as Flint Hills Resources. In 1998, that company--then known as Koch Petroleum Group--paid a $6.9 million fine for air and water pollution at its Rosemount refinery, the largest such penalty in state history.

Sol Simon, the executive director of the Winona-based Mississippi River Revival, thinks that more "partnering" with polluters may not be the best approach. "Basically the policy of the MPCA and other agencies to date has been to weaken the Clean Water Act, and we see polluters get allowed to discharge more and more pollutants because the agencies don't want to take on powerful interests," Simon contends. "In the end, we're not going to be able to buy our way out of this problem. The state needs to rely more on enforcing the laws we have."

If Pawlenty follows through on his promises, Simon acknowledges, it would represent a significant departure from practices of the past. But, he notes, positive rhetoric is nothing new.

"I hope he means what he says," Simon adds. "But I'm not holding my breath. To me, it looks like a promise from a politician."

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