Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner Laura Bishop, Gov. Tim Walz’s appointment to the state’s environmental regulatory agency, sees her role as collaborator.
“It's about that collaboration, communication, less about the technical aspects of a job and more about the bigger picture and problem solving,” Bishop said. “That is what drew me into this, as well as a great appreciation for the environment.”
That, Bishop said, is exactly what she did in her last job as Best Buy’s chief sustainability officer, and prior to that, with her roles throughout state and federal government.
On her and Walz’s 100th day in office Wednesday, Bishop was in Duluth to attend a conference on the yearslong cleanup of industrial waste left in the St. Louis River.
During her time in Duluth, Bishop sat down with the News Tribune to discuss environmental issues facing the state and Northland.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
News Tribune: What are some of the most pressing environmental issues facing the Northland?
Bishop: One of the reasons that I'm here at this meeting today (Wednesday) - this is a really important one - the St. Louis River Area of Concern. It's been an ongoing project since 1996, we've been funding the improvements, and we're almost halfway there - 40 percent to getting it delisted. The St. Louis River and Lake Superior are really the gems of Minnesota and part of our recreation and livelihood. So I'd say that that's certainly a pressing one for us. It's also both inspirational and aspirational. It’s inspiration because of what we've done, and we know we need to go further. So that revitalization is going to continue to be important.
I would say other issues that we’re always looking at here in the northern area of the state: how we balance our water quality with our industries up here, especially our mining industries. So looking at our permitting processes carefully, and working with those permit holders to ensure that they're meeting the standards, as well as when they put proposals forward, is an important part of this job and something we’ll be very focused on. It’s an important industry up here, but we need them to be leading the environment as well. That's an expectation that we have.
DNT: Do you see the agency making any changes to those water quality standards?
Bishop: We're always looking at them - and certainly on some of our water standards - we’re looking at them and modernizing, but there's nothing dramatic that is in play right now.
DNT: Do you see the agency picking up the sulfate standard for wild rice again?
Bishop: What I will say is, I've been working very closely with the governor and lieutenant governor. And as we look at that - again, we're not necessarily looking at that standard right now - we are doing tribal government-to-government consultations with all of the tribes. In fact, I'm meeting with the Fond du Lac tribe later today (Wednesday).
This is something that I sat down with the governor and lieutenant governor and all of the tribal leadership at the (Minnesota Indian Affairs Council) meeting maybe a month ago really to ask how they wanted to move ahead. And their request, and the tribes’ request, was really one-on-one, tribal-government consultations right now. That's what I'm committed to, and will be doing from now through the summer before we move forward on anything.
DNT: So that’s a gathering of stakeholder input?
Bishop: Yes, their input. Certainly we know that it’s both a spiritual and an essential part of the tribes’ background and appreciation for their way of life. We want to make certain that we’re mindful of that as we’re having any discussion.
DNT: Would there ever be a time when the environment trumps business? Can you elaborate a little bit on when you have to pick one or the other?
Bishop: Our job - at the heart of it - is to protect and improve the environment and public health. So, that's what will be at the heart of every decision. It won't be about the industry, it’ll be about if industry can continue to uphold that mission as well for our state.
What I will tell you is, we (the PCA) don't have a lot of resources for enforcement as an agency. This has been one of my “ahas” as commissioner in my first 100 days. When we do find someone in violation of a permit that we've issued, we have to be strong on this because it has to act as a deterrent for other bad actors. And really, businesses are doing well. Most are in compliance, and we've got a great state that has honored that “trust, but verify.” But when things go awry, and we saw it happen in the Twin Cities with a company that was emitting a harmful chemical into the air - cancerous carcinogens into the air - we issued one of the biggest fines that we’ve issued as an agency just a month ago. Water Gremlin was a nearly $7 million fine, but it had been going on for a long time.
When we see actions that are adverse to the compliance standards of their permits, we have to take heavy action and we do.
And really, that was because of the environmental and the potential health of the people around there - we have to protect their health. So that will always come first.
DNT: When Gov. Walz announced your appointment, you said, "I think we're seeing the federal government start to walk away from some of the previous commitments. The state has always been a leader, and we should continue to lead." What’s the PCA’s role in that?
Bishop: It was something that (Walz) and I talked about a lot during my interview process. As a chief sustainability officer of a major company, I played an instrumental role in setting our carbon reduction goals for Best Buy. And that really is involved in looking over the whole company and bringing people to the table, so Walz sees me as playing a role like that here in the state.
With our mission of protecting and improving the environment and public health, that's essential, that’s central to whatever other agencies are going to be doing on climate change - it’s really a coordinating role.
The governor has proposed a 100-percent-clean-energy-by-2050 bill that's coming mainly from a push through (the Department of Commerce). But again, it will roll up to this larger climate agenda, our (electric vehicle) infrastructure bills that we have that go through MPCA, but also may be going through Commerce or (the Minnesota Department of Transportation) also roll up to larger agendas.
DNT: Is it more difficult for this area of the state to address climate change with so much industry up here? Does that present a unique challenge that maybe the rest of the state doesn’t face?
Bishop: It presents a challenge. I don't know that the north presents as much of a challenge as our agriculture industry presents more of a challenge in a lot of ways. We’ll be looking at water quality, at run-off - how that impacts and when we have these incredible, extreme weather events, whether it's extreme cold or the flooding that we're likely seeing and starting to see in the south part of the state. That impacts so much of our water quality. We see more of that in the south than we do up here.
DNT: But there has to be some unique challenges inherit with industry up here, namely mining.
Bishop: Of course, and we see it. When we look at our greenhouse gas emissions or we look at our air quality, certainly it’s something that we’re looking at and looking at ways to make improvements there. So, yes.
DNT: And industry is more resistant to eliminating coal or transitioning to different energy sources.
Bishop: Yeah, and some of those major industries that are still being fueled through coal, we're looking at ways that we can transition them off of that. Minnesota Power has really looked at how they can transition better away from coal. And so there's been a lot of interest that they've had in the 100 percent clean energy proposals, and we know that Xcel is already on track to get their brand to 100 percent. So we see other industries moving along, too.
DNT: What are your views on copper-nickel mining? Do you have concerns over what that new industry would bring to the state?
Bishop: For me, I'm a fresh set of eyes to look at this, and we haven't seen any proposals yet come in from Twin Metals. So, certainly, I'll be reviewing what decisions were made over a lengthy process and approval process that went forward with PolyMet before we make any decisions on having something like this in a very pristine area of our state.
Our job is to evaluate and make certain that, especially around water, that it's protected in any permitting or any proposal that comes forward. So they would absolutely have to have those assurances in anything that they put forward. But again, we haven't seen anything, and it’s speculative to talk about it at this point.
DNT: Given that Gov. Walz has been very cautious when it comes to Twin Metals, can the project still get a fair review?
Bishop: Of course it can get a fair review. They (Twin Metals) are taking it slow and very cautious. I would expect that anything that would come forward, that they have done their due diligence and that they have assessed everything completely.
But we’re not asking for this to come forward at this point in time.
I know that Gov. Walz spends a lot of time and has spent a lot of time in the Boundary Waters. It's a very important place for him and his family, and I share that. For many of us, this is an absolutely beautiful area of the state and a treasure for all of us that we want to make certain that nothing is impacting that quality that we see in the environment.