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Minnesota Opinion: Minnesota can remain 'land of sky blue waters'

Proposed new water standards aren't for drinking water

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The Duluth Water Treatment Plant was built in 1897 on Scenic Highway 61. Eric Shaffer, Duluth's chief engineer of utilities, told the News Tribune Opinion page this week the city has no concerns over an MPCA proposal to lift some standards for waters meant for industry, irrigation, and livestock and wildlife drinking. “We do not envision any issues at the water plant,” Shaffer said.

On its surface, the proposal seems alarming and misguided. What does the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency mean it wants to lower some standards for water quality in the Land of 10,000 Lakes?

Relax. The agency isn’t suggesting touching any standards for our drinking water. Those lofty benchmarks for purity — ensuring that Minnesota remains “the land of sky blue waters,” as the Hamm’s brewery in St. Paul used to boast in song — can be expected to remain intact.

Rather, the MPCA’s proposed changes would apply to waters used by industries like mining and for things like irrigation and livestock. More specifically, the proposal would remove numerical standards in favor of narrative standards for conductivity, hardness, sodium, and bicarbonates in waters meant for industry and irrigation. And they would allow for higher amounts of chloride, alkalinity, salinity, and total dissolved solids in waters used for industry, irrigation, and animals, as the Duluth News Tribune’s Jimmy Lovrien has reported.

Environmentalists and others are concerned — quite understandably. The standards targeted for updating are used when writing discharge permits for industries. But the proposal actually would make the pollution limitations set in those permits more enforceable, according to the MPCA.

Improving the agency’s ability to enforce water qualit y is something that can be easily supported by most Minnesotans statewide.

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An administrative law judge last week agreed, stating in recommending approval of the MPCA’s proposal that the agency has the legal authority to make “needed and reasonable” rule changes to the state’s Class 3 and 4 waters (again, waters for industrial processes, agriculture, and wildlife). Judge Eric L. Lipman’s recommendation was issued April 9.

The existing standards are outdated, and changes are long overdue, the agency has effectively and convincingly argued. With approval, the new standards would be at least “equally protective,” according to the MPCA.

Its proposal now continues through a rule-making process that can ensure, among other things, adherence with the Clean Water Act. Following appropriate considerations and reviews, the proposal can be sent to the Environmental Protection Agency for its approval.

Like the administrative law judge last week, Minnesotans can recognize “the reasonableness of the agency’s approach” here, as MPCA spokesman Darin Broton said in a statement to the Duluth News Tribune.

"The agency has consistently said Minnesota can protect its waters while lowering regulatory hurdles by using the latest science as a guide," Broton said.

If that helps our jobs-producing industries play their part in ensuring water purity, while also ensuring their ability to operate profitably and stay in business, all the better. It’s a win-win, without any expected impact on our drinking water — or our sky blue beer-making water .

This Minnesota Opinio n editorial is the opinion of the Duluth News Tribune Editorial Board.

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