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Sen. Eken fights MPCA, says costs could break Greater MN cities

Detroit Lakes, MN (Forum News Service) - In Detroit Lakes, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has set the most stringent phosphorus emission standard in the state, essentially forcing the city to spend some $30 million on a new wastewater treatment plant.

Most of the cost will be paid through higher wastewater utility bills – the average DL resident will eventually pay about $35 a month more for decades.

In Moorhead, the MPCA is essentially forcing the city to spend up to $10 million to reduce its phosphorus emissions to the Red River from 4 mg to 1 mg per liter – even though Fargo’s standards are 12 mg per liter.

The Moorhead plant contributes less than half of 1 percent of the phosphorus flowing into Lake Winnipeg.

Whacking Minnesota cities and companies without addressing the overall problem in the Red River basin, including emissions from North Dakota, is like building half a dam, said Minnesota Sen. Kent Eken.

“They (the MPCA) didn’t take into consideration the cost and whether the incremental benefit they have is worth the cost,” he said. “If it’s not worth the cost, we can use those dollars more wisely.”

Other cities across the state are also being required to spend millions to upgrade their wastewater treatment plants due to more-stringent MPCA permitting requirements.

“We’re kind of reaching a breaking point here with some of the regulations coming down the pike, and there’s going to be more,” Eken said. “Regulations on top of regulations could ultimately break the backs of our greater Minnesota communities and businesses.”

Eken is the chief sponsor of a Senate bill that would have required MPCA regulations to undergo cost-benefit analysis, undergo scientific peer review of water-quality standards at high cost levels ($50 million statewide or $5 million per community or business), and require Legislative approval of high-cost rules.

That last one was a no-starter with fellow DFLer Gov. Mark Dayton, but Eken won a partial victory this legislative session on the first two reforms.

A cost-benefit analysis will now have to be done, and the MPCA will now have to explain itself when it decides not to use the independent peer review process.

“I did have language in there also dealing with the phosphorus issue, feeling the MPCA doesn’t adequately take into consideration the costs that are being proposed. They can be extremely high, and if there are little if any benefits (the state risks sparking a backlash) if they’re not applied in a common-sense way,” he said.

Eken says he has been accused of being anti-environment, which he says is not true. But he believes it’s the Legislature’s job to look at the big picture when it comes to the impact of expensive MPCA mandates across the state.

“I don’t want to write the rules, but the Legislature needs to have some oversight of the process. Agencies don’t pay the costs … They do think about the costs, but not enough. The state agencies would be a lot more sensitive to that if (the state) had to pick up the costs.”

At this point, said Bradley Peterson, senior lobbyist for the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, “it’s going to be a city by city issue. They may need to be very aggressive in challenging the MPCA on the standards MPCA wants to impose on them.”

Dan Dorman, executive director of the Greater Minnesota Partnership and a former state representative, said the MPCA is “on notice they can’t just do what they want – people are paying attention … We need to hold MPCA’s feet to the fire on their promises to work with communities. We need to force them to live up to their commitments.”