Due to COVID-19, the Minnesota Legislature came toan unexpected halt this month. While we didn’t anticipate such an abrupt stop, we want to provide our MESERB members with an update as to what has gone on at the Legislature this session.
When announcing the legislative hiatus earlier this month, the four legislative leaders stated that they will focus on three types of bills between now and the constitutional end of session in May:
- Legislation necessary for COVID-19 response
- “Mission critical” legislation, such as the bonding bill
- Items that have bipartisan agreement
As described below, we remain hopeful that one of the most pressing environmental priorities may advance yet this session; however, we anticipate that most of our other priorities will not.
Public Facilities Authority (PFA) Bonding Request – $200 Million
The first top environmental priority is to secure $200 million for the PFA for its grant and loan programs that fund water and wastewater projects. This amount represents the estimated need for the next two years and would position the PFA so that every city with a project could receive the amount for which it is eligible right away. As the last few years have demonstrated, it is of utmost importance that cities have the funds they need when their project is ready to go.
Working with Sen. Gary Dahms (R-Redwood Falls) and Rep. Julie Sandstede (DFL-Hibbing), Elizabeth Wefel working with the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities (CGMC) introduced legislation in both chambers, SF 3336/HF 3529. Gov. Walz included a recommendation for $200 million for the PFA in his proposed bonding bill as well.
The House and the Senate have not yet made any formal recommendations, but many legislators from both parties have emphasized the need to include wastewater and drinking water needs in any bonding bill. Because the Governor’s bonding proposal included a nearly identical recommendation and the House held a hearing on his recommendations, the House Capital Investment Committee chose not to hold a separate hearing on this matter. The Senate had just begun to hear bonding bills before the forced break due to the pandemic.
Our hope is that a bonding bill will pass yet this session. We are planning to write a letter to the Governor’s Office and top legislators urging them to pass a bill with $200 million in PFA funding.
Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances Legislation
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of more than 4,000 synthetic chemicals that have been manufactured and used across the globe since the 1940s. Over the last several years, increasing attention has been paid to the potential health issues caused by these “forever” chemicals as PFAS contamination has been found in municipal water supplies, including in the east metro area and in cities like Bemidji.
The challenge for cities is that while PFAS contamination in drinking water can be addressed through some forms of treatment (which is expensive), there is currently no effective treatment for PFAS at wastewater facilities. For wastewater facilities, the most effective way to address PFAS is by removing the sources of PFAS and trying to prevent them from entering the waste stream in the first place.
PFAS contamination and pollution must be taken seriously, but as federal and state governments move forward on regulation, it is essential that any new laws or regulations be grounded in science and reflect that technology is not currently available to treat for PFAS at wastewater plants. Though we don’t directly lobby, we have worked closely with the CGMC, the League of Minnesota Cities (LMC) and other municipal groups, as well as Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), to help them introduce legislation that would focus on PFAS sources, SF 3414 (authored by Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point) and HF 3638 (authored by Rep. Peter Fischer, DFL-Maplewood). The bill would address this challenge by allocating $500,000 for the following:
- Identify of the primary sources of PFAS to municipal wastewater facilities
- Identifying strategies to reduce those sources
- Create guidance and education materials for cities to work with citizens and businesses on source reduction
The legislation would also create an advisory group with members from the CGMC, MESERB, LMC and other groups that would work with the MPCA and MDH on this project. We have received positive responses from legislators when discussing this legislation, but we were unable to schedule a hearing before the Legislature went on break. Although this issue is extremely important, we may not be able to press forward until next year. However, we will be ready to move ahead when the new session starts.
In addition to the CGMC/LMC bill, there are multiple pieces of legislation relating to PFAS that have been moving through the Legislature. Some bills would be helpful to cities, but others would be harmful. MESERB attorney Gretel Lee has been working with the CGMC and LMC to push back on multiple pieces of legislation.
Here is a sampling of the legislation relating to PFAS at the legislature this session:
- HF 3423 / SF 3401 – Legislation to allocate funding to MPCA to adopt rules establishing water quality standards for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) by July 1, 2023.
This legislation is concerning because if adopted it would likely be incorporated into wastewater permits in many places across the state. As mentioned above, there are no treatment options that our facilities can feasibly install to reduce the level of PFAS; therefore, municipal facilities would be subject to violations and potential liability. We pushed back hard against this legislation in the House; the CGMC and LMC representatives met with the bill author, Rep. Steve Sandell (DFL-Woodbury) multiple times as well as speaking against it with other legislators. Rep. Sandell has pushed for the bill because the wells in his city have been contaminated due to their proximity to 3M manufacturing facilities. We explained, and believe he understood, that this proposal is not the way to address drinking water issues and that he should be directing his attention to the Department of Health. Nonetheless, he continued to push it forward despite our efforts with individual legislators and with the committee.
The legislation advanced through three committees in the House, but it was not heard in the Senate. It is unlikely that it will be addressed if and when the Legislature reconvenes this year, but it will likely come up again next year.
In addition to the bill mentioned above, Rep. Rick Hansen (DFL-South St. Paul) introduced a bill, HF 4311/SF 4365, that would have done the same as Rep. Sandell’s bill, but it would have allocated the money from the Clean Water Fund, which is part of Legacy funding. This proposal was scheduled for a hearing before the Legislature went on break, but the hearing was cancelled.
- HF 3182/SF 3081 – Legislation to classify PFAS as hazardous substances under the Minnesota Environmental Response and Liability Act (MERLA).
MERLA, modeled after federal superfund law, is designed to stop companies from abandoning toxic sites after they finish working on them. In theory, this legislation would make it easier to go after the manufacturers of PFAS for harm and potential clean-up costs. The concern is that the law would create strict liability for anyone “releasing” PFAS, regardless of whether they were responsible for the presence of the PFAS. Because PFAS are found in most water bodies, wastewater facilities could be held liable each time they release water, even though wastewater facilities are not sources of PFAS.
We worked closely with the House author, Rep. Anne Claflin (DFL-South St. Paul), to draft an amendment to exempt municipal wastewater and storm water facilities from liability. However, several of her colleagues refused to accept the amendment. As a result, the bill was pulled moments before it was scheduled to be heard in committee. Another attempt was made to hear it, but the obstructionist legislators refused to budge so the bill did not move forward. We do not expect the bill to advance this year. We will continue to work with the MPCA and others in an effort to ensure that if such legislation is attempted again it exempts municipal facilities.
- HF 3268/SF 3674 – Legislation would create a PFAS task force made up primarily of state agency personnel. It would also reserve a seat for someone representing a Greater Minnesota community affected by PFAS.
The task force would be tasked with gathering information about PFAS, creating an interagency plan and evaluating a range of other data regarding PFAS. While not opposed to this proposition, we recognized that the requested $150,000 in funding for this task force is most likely not enough to accomplish all the tasks and would not provide the resources municipal wastewater facilities need to focus on source reduction.
The bill advanced through several committees in the House, but it was not heard in the Senate. Given the potential for a budget deficit given the current COVID-19 crisis, it is not likely that this will be funded this year.
- HF 3922 – This legislation would appropriate $500,000 to the MPCA to lead an effort to reduce PFAS in wastewater by 50% in 2025 and 90% in 2030.
Under the bill, the MPCA commissioner may create an advisory group that must include scientists with expertise in PFAS and engineers with expertise in wastewater. This bill was drafted by a legislator who was opposed to the advisory group to be created under our legislation and who thought that our bill did not have sufficient outcomes. This bill does not have a senate companion and did not receive a hearing. We believe it is unlikely to resurface.
In addition to the legislation mentioned above, the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) recommended that $1 million be appropriated from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund (ENRTF) to the MPCA to study and manage PFAS in land-applied biosolids. Due to a dispute over whether funding should be allocated to the Public Facilities Authority out of the ENRTF, the LCCMR never formally adopted its recommendation package. The Legislature can still pass a bill allocating money from the ENRTF, but it had not begun working on a bill prior to the pandemic break. Although both the House and Senate have introduced their own versions, each of which includes funding for this project, neither body had heard the bills.
It is anticipated, based on data from the MPCA, that more than 100 cities could face limits for chloride in their permits. Because removing chloride at a wastewater treatment facility is prohibitively expensive, the MPCA developed a chloride strategy that relies on a combination of tactics including central water softening and the removal or upgrade of home water softeners. How a city complies will depend on a number of factors. For cities who must rely on homeowners to remove and/or replace their softeners, it can be challenging if homeowners do not comply with requests from the city. Because PFA money cannot be used for removal or upgrades, the MPCA created a grant program with $200,000 in funding from the Clean Water Fund that will be unveiled later this year. The program will make grants available to cities to incentivize removal and/or replacement. We are pleased with the creation of the program, but we are concerned that it is insufficiently funded.
The CGMC introduced legislation aimed at reducing chloride in our wastewater streams. HF 3528 (authored by Rep. Jeff Brand, DFL-St. Peter) and SF 3413 (authored by Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake) would appropriate $1 million for chloride reduction strategies, with $750,000 of that allocated to a grant program for water softener optimization and replacement. This bill had been scheduled for hearing last week, but the hearing was cancelled. As with the PFAS bill, this is important but not “mission critical” and is unlikely to advance this session.
If you have any questions with regard to this update, please contact Gretel Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org.