Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Republicans race to the bottom on environmental regulations

Under the guise of streamlining and reform, Republicans in the Minnesota House are considering a bill that would weaken Minnesota's ability to regulate pollutants more strictly than the federal government. Minnesota currently has environmental standards for mercury, atrazine, and other pollutants that are more stringent than the federal standards. If the first bill introduced by the new Republican majority becomes law, it would make it more difficult to adopt future regulations exceeding federal standards.

This week, the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee has conducted a series of hearings around HF1. Among several significant changes to environmental regulations, one key provision requires regulations that exceed federal standards justify why the federal standard "does not provide adequate protection for human health and the environment."

This requirement would gut Minnesota's commitment to environmental protection, particularly in the area of water quality. When it comes to drinking water standards, Minnesota has adopted federal standards. But for standards intended to protect aquatic life and the environment, Minnesota currently has a number of "federal plus" standards. These are examples of what HF1 would flag as excessive regulation and require additional documentation.

For example, Minnesota has adopted standards that are more stringent than federal standards on mercury in water and has adopted standards for several pesticides (atrazine, alachlor, acetochlor, and metolachlor) where there are gaps in federal rules. The issue of mercury is particularly important to Minnesotans, who have become increasingly aware of mercury contamination of the state's waters because of restrictions on the amount of fish that people can safely eat. This issue is so important that even Governor Pawlenty supported it:
In 2005, the federal EPA proposed the Clean Air Mercury Rule, a set of regulations that would ultimately cut coal-fired power plant mercury emissions about 70 percent by 2018 and establish a mercury pollution credit trading regime. In response, Tim Pawlenty, the Republican governor of Minnesota, said, “The goal the federal government has set is too low and too slow.”

The goal of Minnesota’s phased plan is higher and faster than the EPA’s: 90 percent reduction from its six largest coal plant units by 2014. Those six units release about two-thirds of the state’s mercury emissions.
Requiring special justification for any standard in excess of the federal standards creates a presumption that the federal standards are a ceiling (maximum) on regulation. In fact, they represent a floor - a minimum standard that all states must meet while they are free to adopt stricter standards. Minnesota's adoption of strict mercury emissions standards is an excellent example of why a state would choose to exceed federal requirements. Our waters are a crucial state resource and mercury contamination is affecting this vital resource.

This change would not immediately affect existing regulations, but the requirement that the state review its water quality standards every three years means that existing water standards are still vulnerable. One specific example is reconsideration of the sulfate standards for wild rice bearing waters in Minnesota. The inability of mining projects like Polymet to meet the stricter standard for sulfates in wild rice waters has led to a push for revising or eliminating the rule. HF1 would aid that effort.

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