The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s (MPCA’s) commitment to environmental and racial justice is being tested and it’s not doing that great. It gets an incomplete at best.
At issue is the MPCA’s environmental review of Enbridge’s plans to build a tar sands crude oil pipeline across northern Minnesota. To proceed, Enbridge needs the MPCA to approve a water crossing (Section 401) certificate. The proposed Line 3 crosses a lot of water — more than 200 streams and other water bodies and 79 miles of wetlands.
Native Nations have offered strong opposition to Line 3 for violating treaty rights and its threats to clean water and wild rice. Both the pipeline’s construction and future spills would endanger northern Minnesota’s environment.
So what were the MPCA’s goals for engaging Tribal communities in this important decision, and how well did it meet them?
On April 4, 2019, Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan issued an Executive Order “Affirming the Government to Government Relationship between the State of Minnesota and Minnesota Tribal Nations: Providing for Consultation, Coordination, and Cooperation.”
It required state agencies to “develop and maintain ongoing consultation” with the Minnesota Tribal Nations on issues of importance to them, with a goal of “achieving mutually beneficial solutions.”
The MPCA created it’s own Environmental Justice Policy, saying: “no group of people should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, governmental, and commercial operations or policies.”
According to Line 3’s environmental impact statement, Line 3 would have “disproportionate and adverse impacts” on American Indian populations in particular.
During Line 3’s lengthy review before the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, the White Earth Nation, Red Lake Nation and the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe consistently opposed it and continue to do so. The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa both initially opposed the project, but dropped their opposition after reaching agreements with Enbridge.
The MPCA’s water crossing certificate is among Line 3’s last regulatory requirements. The agency’s draft permit, released before the public comment period, proposed approving Line 3’s certificate. The current pandemic disrupted the MPCA’s public engagement process. Regardless, the agency is forging ahead. A final decision is expected no later than August.
White Earth Chairman Michael Fairbanks wrote Gov. Walz to ask him to live up to the “meaningful consultation” commitment in his executive order. He asked that the MPCA deny Line 3’s water crossing certificate and allow Enbridge to reapply when White Earth and others could meaningfully engage in the debate.
Healing Minnesota Stories emailed the MPCA to ask how the Governor’s Executive Order — and the agency’s own Environmental Justice Policy — shaped the agency’s work and decision around Enbridge’s water crossing application. Did the agency see Chairman Fairbanks’ letter and if so, how did it respond?
The MPCA’s gave short and vague non answers, more public relations statements than accountability for policy commitments.
Here’s the MPCA’s complete answer regarding how the Governor’s executive order shaped the agency’s Line 3 work:
The MPCA is committed to meaningful consultation with Minnesota Tribal Nations, as prescribed in Executive Order 19-24. The MPCA recognizes the importance of its decision-making on the proposed Line 3 project for all of Minnesota’s Tribal Nations, communities, tribal members, and environmental justice communities. For this reason, the agency prioritized intergovernmental coordination early in project reviews and have worked to ensure that tribal and community input has been valued and considered throughout the process.
Here’s the MPCA’s complete answer regarding how the agency applied its environmental justice policy to its deliberations:
The MPCA believes in ongoing stakeholder feedback and collaboration. We engaged with stakeholders early on, and continued to engage throughout. For example, in November 2018, we met with more than 20 people from various environmental organizations, tribal members and MPCA environmental justice committee members on their concerns. We continued to meet with any group that asked. The most recent meeting occurred in March 2020 when Commissioner Bishop, along with other MPCA leadership and staff, met with several environmental advocates to discuss the project.
The MPCA gave no details on how it implemented the Governor’s executive order and what “meaningful consultation” means in concrete terms. The agency has to do better than say it’s “committed to meaningful consultation” and it “prioritized intergovernmental coordination.” It said nothing about how it tried to reach the more challenging and loftier goal of “achieving mutually beneficial solutions.”
The MPCA made no effort to explain how it weighed Line 3’s disproportionate impact on Indigenous people, or how it squared that fact with its Environmental Justice Policy commitments. It didn’t comment on the Fairbanks letter.
Providing more clarity about “meaningful consultation” is important, especially in cases like this where the agency’s recommendation go against Tribal interests and suggest Tribal input had little if any practical impact. If the agency can offer no better explanation than it has, the executive order and the MPCA’s Environmental Justice Policy will be rightfully dismissed as lip service.
Healing Minnesota Stories emailed White Earth, Red Lake, and Mille Lacs seeking comment on whether they thought the MPCA had lived up to the executive order and its environmental justice policy.
None of them responded. Given the sensitivity of state-tribal relations, silence makes sense. Maybe they have seen an improvement.
Yet the MPCA isn’t just accountable to Native Nations for meeting these commitments, but to all citizens. Many white people care about these issues, too. (This blog’s author is white.) Given this state’s horrendous treatment of Native Nations and Indigenous people since first contact, we should all care about improving state-tribal relations. We will never be able to undo the harm, but at a minimum we should live up to our commitments.