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Minnesota lawmakers consider steeper fines for violating limits on water use

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Minnesota lawmakers are considering whether to strengthen the penalties for farms, companies and cities that pump millions of gallons more water than their state permits allow.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said the state’s rules are inadequate, offering almost no consequences for those who brazenly ignore permitting rules or pump drastically more water than they are allowed.

The lack of repercussions was apparent after several major violations of water laws and permits during the 2021 drought, when aquifers and wells across the state were stressed under the most severe dry spell in decades.

The DNR is currently allowed to issue an administrative penalty of up to $20,000. But that fine doesn’t have to be paid so long as the violation is corrected. A proposal that’s been heard by House and Senate committees would increase the maximum fine to $40,000 and allow the DNR to decide whether or not to forgive it.

It would also allow the DNR to revoke permits after egregious or repeat violations, and refer cases to law enforcement.

“The $20,000 limit is too low to deter violators,” said Katie Smith, DNR ecological and water resources director.

During the 2021 drought, nearly 800 Minnesota farmers with high-capacity wells pumped 6.5 billion more gallons of water than their permits allowed, a Star Tribune review of water permit data reported each year to the DNR found.

Farms on land owned or operated by one company — R.D. Offutt Co., a potato-growing giant that has become one of the biggest water users in the state — were responsible for 23% of the excessive pumping.

Some of those individual farms pumped tens of millions of gallons more water than their permits allowed. Not only will they face no fines under the current law, but many won’t need to pay for the extra water they used based on the tiered system the state charges high-capacity users.

The city of Blaine opened three new wells and pumped millions of gallons in 2021 and 2022 without getting permits. The DNR learned about it only after 141 nearby private well owners complained about running dry.

Blaine likely won’t face any fines.

Farmers and the Irrigators Association of Minnesota asked lawmakers to carve out an exception in the proposed law for agricultural water use during droughts.

“We need some protection in years where we just have to go over,” said Anna Bregier, vice president of the association and an owner of Prairie Farm Co. in Benton County. “Really, the only time farmers would go over is during a drought.”

Prairie Farm has about 30 water permits registered in its name. During the 2021 drought, the farm reported using more water than allowed on nine of them, amounting to 199 million gallons of extra water.

The company did not report going over permit during nondrought years, state records show. Few agricultural irrigators report exceeding their permits outside of droughts.

If the state’s intention is to make sure repeat violators are held accountable, it should make sure that farmers aren’t punished during the rare dry years they need to save their crops, Bregier said.

“Small farmers cannot afford nor deserve these penalties,” she said.

As irrigation technology has improved over the last several decades, so too has Minnesota’s reliance on it.

In 1988, during the last drought that was as severe as 2021, a total of 2,700 crop irrigation permit holders reported pumping 88.4 billion gallons of water, according to state records. In 2021 that jumped to more than 6,000 irrigators pumping 160.5 billion gallons, the records show.

Even with a growing population, most other sectors of Minnesota’s economy cut water use during that time, including for power generation, industrial processing and public drinking water supplies.

Supporters of the increased fines argue that if water permit limits don’t apply during the driest years — when water supplies are most stressed — than what good are they?

“Permits are there for a reason and if people are violating them, it needs to be addressed,” said state Rep. Heather Edelson, DFL-Edina.



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Striking workers shut down Minneapolis Park Board meeting with three-hour protest

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Workers who are striking the Minneapolis Park Board for the first time in the agency’s 141-year history took the fight over their stalled contract negotiations to commissioners Wednesday night, demonstrating at their meeting for three hours straight until the board was forced to adjourn without getting anything done.

Commissioners Becky Alper and Tom Olsen started the meeting by attempting to amend the agenda with a resolution directing park managers to promptly settle with union workers. They asked the Park Board’s negotiating team to offer Local 363 a proposal with market adjustments that union leaders have committed to accepting verbally and in writing, but without the contract takeaways the union calls “poison pills” — such as provisions to reduce the number of stewards, double probation time for new hires and make automatic seniority raises discretionary.

“This unprecedented situation diverts our attention from our primary mission: preserving, protecting‚ maintaining, improving and enhancing parks,” said Alper. “Without this resolution we face as the Park Board a perilous path forward. It’s one with no end in sight. It’s one where we gradually crawl out of this hole while parks deteriorate, where workers’ families are impacted without paychecks and dissatisfaction grows among the public.”

Commissioners Alper, Olsen and Billy Menz supported amending the agenda to allow discussion of the resolution. However, Park Board President Meg Forney, Vice President Cathy Abene and Commissioners Steffanie Musich, Elizabeth Shaffer and Becka Thompson rejected the amendment (Commissioner Charles Rucker was absent).

Workers in the gallery shouted their dissatisfaction, asking why the commissioners refused to end the strike, now in its third week. The work stoppage has disrupted storm cleanup of the parks, canceled concerts at the Lake Harriet bandshell and caused maintenance jams across the system.

The only dissenter to respond was Thompson, who said she did not understand how the contract offer described in the Alper-Olsen resolution would affect the whole system. Menz, who voted to amend the agenda, added that his colleagues did not want to appear unsupportive of their negotiating team, which includes Superintendent Al Bangoura.

Kevin Pranis, Local 363′s marketing manager, said park officials were negotiating like they wanted to break the strike rather than settle it. He said it was only after seven months of stalled negotiations, and a 94% vote by Local 363 membership to authorize a strike, that the park negotiating team locked onto the “poison pill” takeaways.

“What’s happened now is that management has decided, after 140 years of Park Board history there’s never been a strike, that the goal … is now to make sure that for another 140 years no one will consider striking because they got hurt so badly in this strike,” Pranis told commissioners. “That no other union will ever consider going on strike.”

Every time commissioners attempted to move onto other business, park workers and allies from other unions formed a picket line around the board room, chanting “No contract, no peace!” and “What’s disgusting? Union busting!”

Individual workers spoke directly to commissioners, saying they had received discipline without due process and describing grievances they have pending with managers that likely have not risen to commissioners’ attention.

As the demonstration dragged on without comments from the dais, commissioners ate their dinners and had whispered conversations with each other and park lawyer Brian Rice, while the union ordered dinner from Portillo’s.

Commissioners finally walked out of the room around 8 p.m., three hours after the meeting began, without working through the agenda. Items not acted on included a resolution to transfer $10 million from neighborhood parks across the city to the redesign of North Commons Park, and extension of the lease for the Boys and Girls Club at Phelps Park.

Terryl Brumm, CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of the Twin Cities, left the meeting early, saying that while the Club’s lease of the Phelps Recreation Center now technically expires, she was confident the Park Board won’t evict them.



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Rochester blocks comments on city social media pages

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ROCHESTER – Residents here with questions or concerns about city government will no longer be able to use official city social media pages to air their grievances.

On Wednesday, the city of Rochester began restricting social media users from leaving comments on posts from its official Facebook and Instagram pages, as well as pages for parks, police and other departments.

City Administrator Alison Zelms said the policy is in response to what she described as “counterproductive” activity on the city’s social media pages.

“Discontinuing the use of comments effectively reduces the potential for harmful content and negative interactions because it removes an unmoderated and monitored forum for those activities,” Zelms wrote in the announcement.

Comment sections on city posts were typically not monitored by departments, city officials said, due to “staffing challenges” and a prioritization of resources to other city needs. Rochester Public Schools also no longer allows public comments on its posts.

Mayor Kim Norton, who has spoken previously about the negative interactions she has had online, also disabled comments on her pages on Wednesday. Users will now only be able to react (by emoji) to posts or reshare a post with comments to their own personal pages. Norton said she remains available by phone or email.

“I believe this change will support our efforts to provide information, and also to create a better, safer digital environment for all,” Norton said in a statement.

Within hours of the announcement, threads on other sites began filling up with questions about the legality of the new city policy, with some users suggesting it amounted to censorship.

But Dr. Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota, said the city is within its rights to discontinue public comments on its social media channels. Kirtley noted that while local governments cannot block comments based on one viewpoint or another, they are under no obligation to manage a public forum on social media.

“They can decide to discontinue the public forum if they choose,” Kirtley said. “If they do allow public comments, they can only impose reasonable restrictions on time, place, and manner. These restrictions must be viewpoint neutral.”

On social media threads — ones not managed by the city — there were a few users who defended the government’s decision to restrict comments, noting that city threads are often cesspools of comments from people trolling and harassing public officials.

But overwhelmingly, users were critical of the move. One commenter wrote that while “the change may simplify some aspects of the city’s social media management … eliminating open dialogue among constituents on the platforms most people use to connect is certainly not going to improve community engagement or help build trust in local government.”



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Judge blocks MPCA from restricting hours at St. Paul iron foundry accused of pollution

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A judge has blocked the state from limiting operating hours and imposing other restrictions intended to reduce air pollution from a St. Paul iron foundry.

Earlier this year, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency ordered Northern Iron, LLC, to limit its daily operations to control airborne lead and particulate matter, which can damage the lungs and circulatory system when inhaled.

But in a ruling issued July 11, Ramsey County District Judge Leonardo Castro partially granted Northern Iron’s request for an injunction, preventing the state from enforcing limits on how much metal the company could melt in a day and what hours it could operate. Northern Iron says the agency’s demands would make the foundry go out of business.

The judge left intact other provisions of MPCA’s order, and ordered the business and the agency to work together on a new air permit and installing new pollution control equipment. MPCA has said the business’ own modeling shows it is releasing pollutants at thousands of times the level allowed by law.

Alex Lawton, CEO of foundry owner Lawton Standard, told the Star Tribune that after the ruling, he “felt relief for the folks who were laid off that who wanted to come back to work.” The company announced shortly after MPCA’s order that it would have to cut 15% of its workforce, but is now operating with its full staffing of about 80 employees.

MPCA said in an email sent out shortly after the ruling that it “respectfully disagrees” with the decision.

“We stand ready to hold the company accountable should pollution emissions exceed [air quality] standards, to protect the health company employees and nearby residents,” agency spokesperson Andrea Cournoyer wrote in a statement.

Northern Iron opened at 867 N. Forest St. in St. Paul’s Payne-Phalen neighborhood in 1906. It molds made-to-order components that other companies use in finished products. Lawton Standard bought the business in 2022.

Sidney Pisano, vice chair of the Payne-Phalen Community Council, said the court decision has left the neighborhood feeling “disregarded.”

“It feels like we don’t matter, and I think that’s a sentiment a lot of East Siders have felt for a long time,” she said.

The situation has played out differently than the regulation of another urban iron casting company. Smith Foundry spurred complaints of bad smells and air pollution for years from neighbors in Minneapolis’ East Phillips neighborhood. The EPA took the lead on an investigation there, after a surprise inspection last year, and got the foundry to agree to shut down its furnace and casting operations in a settlement. Some in the area were frustrated it took action by EPA, not MPCA, to address the issues.

In the Northern Iron case, MPCA has led the enforcement, including a $41,500 fine imposed on the foundry last year for changing its pollution controls without reporting it to the state. Lawton said the Smith Foundry case was hanging over the regulation of his own business, and suggested it had encouraged regulators to take a stronger hand.

“I think Smith and certain other factors like that seemed to be omnipresent,” he said.

Since the fine last year, MPCA and the foundry have been discussing how to reduce its emissions. After one round of modelling showed that the particulate matter and lead released were thousands of times higher than federal rules allow, Northern Iron then came up with new calculations to show how the emissions would change if they altered their hours or installed new equipment.

The particulate pollution would still be higher than allowed, and the calculations for lead “seemingly defy the conservation of mass and likely cause an underestimate of lead emissions at some sources,” according to MPCA’s administrative order.

The company contends that it’s not polluting, because monitors stationed around the foundry show the air doesn’t exceed state limits on contaminants. It is still planning to install two air filters and make other improvements at the building, a project that will cost around $2 million, Lawton said.

But Cournoyer said that the foundry’s current permit requires it to use modeling to show it is meeting air quality standards.

The foundry and the state agency will next be in court on Aug. 22, when MPCA will argue to dismiss the case. Northern Iron said it plans to submit a new air permit application by August.

“I feel glad the MPCA is keeping the pressure on,” Pisano said.



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