It was not that long ago that Texas was celebrated as the center of the world’s energy. An entire culture was built around the unique size and wealth of Texas and its oil and natural gas.

The same can be said of Minnesota with its abundance of water and national advertisements depicting the “Land of Sky Blue Waters,” with animals playfully celebrating the cleanliness of our waters.

Just as Texas leaders turned over their responsibility for appropriate oversight of energy distribution to energy producers, Minnesota leaders are considering precisely the same with our waters. Given the present state of our water, this is extremely dangerous.

Currently, commercial interests, led by US Steel and other companies, support the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s proposal to simplify rules pertaining to water-quality standards (“Minnesota may lift water standards,” Feb. 23).

Federal and state governments currently decide how much poison, including mercury and arsenic, the public can absorb. Now, the pressure is on to allow more.

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The MPCA is currently in court due to its all-too-cozy relationships with the industries it regulates. For instance, the former commissioner who oversaw the permitting of PolyMet resigned and later joined and became a vice president for the very company he once regulated. Later, a top official of the MPCA requested that the federal Environmental Protection Agency withhold vital health and clean-water information from the public. Not only was there no action taken by the governor or Legislature, the official in question was simply moved to a leadership position in another agency.

Then, in November 2019, it was reported that 56% of Minnesota’s lakes and streams are “impaired.” This should have been a huge red flag that warranted swift and appropriate action from our leaders. Our most precious resource, our clean, drinkable water, was in serious jeopardy. But again, the governor, his appointees, and elected legislative leaders chose to do nothing — absolutely nothing.

Preceding this announcement, environmental groups, retired public officials, and leaders from the legal community sounded the alarm relative to the processing of mining permits to two shell corporations owned by foreign conglomerates Glencore and Antofagasta. Glencore has been the subject of allegations of breach of contract, child labor, money laundering, bribery of public officials, and more.

Instead of refusing to do business with these international rogues, our state leaders welcomed them in and proceeded to enter into contracts that are grossly imbalanced against the state’s best interests. For instance, contrary to the political propaganda, jobs are not guaranteed, a health study petitioned for by our medical community was rejected, and the financial liability for a devastating accident rests with shell companies with few assets while the wealthy conglomerates remain non-signatories.

For two consecutive legislative sessions, both houses have refused to grant a hearing on the water-quality study, the contracts, or even a review of the liability Minnesotans would have to assume in the event of a dam collapse. This is vital because in January 2019, a mining-company dam broke in Brazil, causing the deaths of at least 270 people and $7 billion in permanent environmental damage. The consultant involved in the design of that dam is also involved in the PolyMet project. Further, legislation requiring mining companies to prove that their processes work before a permit is granted has been ignored.

Despite a record number of rank-and-file legislators opposing these risky projects, the leadership of both parties has not allowed a single hearing for clean water.

This is the face of corruption.

Our Legislature, through the caucus system, raises huge sums of money from special-interest lobbyists, and the caucus leaders then use this money to fund members’ campaigns. This gives caucus leaders considerable power over their colleagues and makes it easy for special interests to direct public-policy concerns through legislative leadership.

Further strengthening the hand of these special interests is Minnesota’s lack of laws dealing with “dark money,” which is money not disclosed to the public. In effect, it has been “laundered” through the system and hidden from public scrutiny.

Several states have passed reform legislation requiring full disclosure from the point of origin. It is long overdue for Minnesota to do the same. Our state government cannot continue to protect this fundamental conflict of interest, which is a direct assault on the public’s right to have a government that serves its best long-term interest and not those of special interests who funnel in the money.

It is imperative the governor and Legislature act on these reforms:

  • Caucus fundraising must be prohibited. Otherwise, the people’s business will be subordinate to those interests who pay.

  • The state should institute a comprehensive study of the condition of our waters statewide with recommendations designed to protect the quality of our water supply well into the future.

  • A moratorium should be instituted on all permits that threaten the health and safety of our waters until the comprehensive statewide water study is complete.

  • Enact a bad-actor law that forbids the state from doing business with corrupt entities.

  • Remove the obligation to promote mining from the DNR’s responsibilities. Create a “no-build” default position for the MPCA and DNR when analyzing any new projects that could threaten Minnesota’s clean water.

Ongoing vigilance is our strongest weapon, and we must always be on guard against those forces of greed that want to convert the public’s assets into private gain. This compels us to have a system of government that is fully transparent, representative of the people, and honest.

Arne H. Carlson was governor of Minnesota from 1991 to 1999. Chris Knopf is executive director of the St. Paul-based nonprofit Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness (friends-bwca.org). Tom Berkelman was a DFL state representative from Duluth from 1975 to 1984. And Janet Entzel was a DFL state representative from Minneapolis from 1976 to 1983.