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EPA freeze leaves Minnesota projects in limbo

Shortly after President Donald Trump's inauguration Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency received a directive to temporarily freeze its contracts and grants.

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A power boat motors across the Duluth Superior harbor basin. (2015 file / News Tribune)
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Shortly after President Donald Trump's inauguration Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency received a directive to temporarily freeze its contracts and grants.

As word of the freeze spread this week, officials have been scrambling to sort out what that move means for projects in Duluth and nationwide.

State Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, said Wednesday afternoon that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency still is searching for answers.

He shared an email response he received from MPCA staff Tuesday that said if the freeze is made permanent, the agency could lose nearly $10 million in anticipated funding that would affect Superfund and other grants.

Furthermore, the email said that state staff does not know if Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funds may hang in the balance. Federal funds funneled through that program are expected to cover 65 percent of the anticipated $72 million cost of cleaning up contamination in the Duluth-Superior Harbor and St. Louis River estuary.

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Hansen said the lack of information puts state leaders in a difficult spot.

"It's not just Minnesota. It's nationwide that there is fear and frustration with what's happening. From my perspective on what does this mean for state finances, if you've got ongoing programs where all of the sudden the federal money's gone, then you've got to make decisions as to whether we should pick up those costs. Or do the programs stop? And we're dealing with clean water, drinking water and a variety of things that are very important for our economy," said Hansen, who serves on the House Environmental and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee.

State Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, who chairs the same commission, did not return calls from the News Tribune on Wednesday afternoon regarding recent EPA developments.

Hansen said the MPCA received an email from federal officials saying: "EPA staff have been reviewing grants and contract information with the incoming transition team. Pursuant to that review, the agency is continuing to award program grants, state revolving loan fund grants to states and tribes, and we are working to quickly address issues related to other categories of grants. The goal is to complete the grants and contracts review by the close of business on Friday, Jan. 27."

MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine said he asked for clarification as to what was meant by the portion of the statement regarding "other categories of grants," but he had received no response as of late Wednesday afternoon..

Voicing his frustration with the funding freeze and the scarcity of information, Hansen said: "I think you have a deadly combination of a lack of experience and a sense of ideological superiority, where people's ideology is driving decisions, versus experience."

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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