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MPCA smaller amid state cutbacks, staff retirements

OLIVIA -- Its responsibilities may be growing, but not its staff.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has seen its staffing drop from a high of around 1,200 in 2007 to 900 today.

It will likely shrink to 850 to 875 positions after federal cuts are felt over the next 18 months, the commissioner of the MPCA told reporters during an informal luncheon Dec. 1 in Olivia.

Paul Aasen, appointed to lead the agency by Gov. Mark Dayton in 2011, was in Olivia as part of a tour of large agricultural operations in the area. Joining Aasen were representatives of the Department of Agriculture, Board of Water and Soil Resources, Gov. Dayton's office and the Board of Animal Health.

Greater cooperation among state agencies is one way that MPCA staff are managing the reductions that have resulted from budget cuts, Aasen said. There has been a history of cooperation by agencies in the state, but Gov. Dayton is urging a formalized structure to improve it, according to the commissioner.

He said the bus tour was an opportunity for staff from the different agencies to discuss common issues involving agriculture and environmental compliance.

This type of cooperation is not new stuff for the Department of Agriculture and Board of Animal Health, since agricultural issues often involve the responsibilities of a variety of state agencies, noted Dr. Bill Hartmann, state veterinarian.

The budget cuts and resulting staff reductions have attracted most of the attention, but they are not the only challenge facing the MPCA that Aasen now leads. Like other state agencies, it has seen the exodus of a group of recently retired staff members in the midst of the budget issues. He expects another group of experienced staff to be leaving soon.

"Literally decades of experience are going out the door,'' Aasen said. "Some of these folks have been with the agency since it started.

"As an agency we've never had to go through this churn, this knowledge transfer,'' he said.

The agency has been doing a good job of retaining new staff, but he worries that as the economy picks up, some of the more specialized technicians will be lured away by private industry.

The focus of his recent trip was to view large agricultural operations in the area, including the East Dublin Dairy near Kerkhoven, the Revier Cattle feedlot expansion and Christiansen Farms swine operations in Renville County.

Large-scale agriculture has come under increasing scrutiny by consumer groups. Aasen said many large operations have ample resources to devote to environmental compliance, and work very hard at it.

Helping smaller producers expand and meet environmental requirements is one of the commissioner's goals, and sometimes the larger challenge. Smaller producers are often unfamiliar with the regulatory requirements that are triggered as they expand, he said.

He also emphasized that there are plenty of serious environmental problems created by decidedly small-scale generators. After all these years, toxic dioxins continue to show up in risk screenings in rural areas, Aasen said.

Their source? The plastics burned as part of household garbage in backyard barrels.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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