Serving Minnesota and Northern Iowa.

Aasen says agency doesn't use fines to raise funds

By Janet Kubat Willette

Date Modified: 04/22/2012 1:51 PM

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ROCHESTER, Minn. — Minnesota Pollution Control Agency commissioner Paul Aasen answered the fees-as-fund-raising question and addressed several other topics in a recent hour-long meeting with members of the Post-Bulletin Editorial Board.

"The reason that you hear that (MPCA is using fees to raise funds) is because two budgets ago … prior to that point in time, the fees, fines that we collect in total were split between the general fund and the environmental fund and two budgets ago they were all aimed at the environmental fund," Aasen said. "The environmental fund is the place where we get the biggest share of our agency's budget, so that's the connection people are making when they say OK they're getting fees and fines … so they can fund themselves. Well, nothing goes from the environmental fund to us without being appropriated by the Legislature."

MPCA isn't the only one getting money from the environmental fund.

Over the past five to six years, MPCA has averaged $1.6 million in fines annually. That hasn't changed.

"If we are trying to fund ourselves," he said. "We weren't smart enough to figure out that we should up the ante."

Fines are an extraordinarily small piece of what the agency does, Aasen said. The agency's total biennial budget is $138 million.

"We don't think we've changed our approach and the dollars wouldn't indicate we've changed our approach," he said.

When it comes to the anger in farm country toward MPCA, Aasen said not every complaint is with his agency. When someone from the government shows up on a farm, the farmer isn't always concerned about finding out which agency the person is from. A lot of times MPCA gets the attribution, rightly or wrongly.

At a state Senate hearing earlier this year, several farmers testified about actions that have harmed their operations and a climate of distrust.

"I think there's always an interesting forensic look back into these issues, some raised were pretty old, some of them went back 20 years," Aasen said.

That pre-dates his zone of management and he would argue that's outside where the agency now is. That aside, he doesn't expect everyone to welcome MPCA on their property.

"There are always going to be regulated parties that simply feel as though what we're suggesting they did or what we're taking action about wasn't something worth being fined over or regulated over," he said.

Over the past four years, the MPCA has inspected 1,400 of the 27,000 registered feedlots in Minnesota, Aasen said. Of those 1,400, 500 had some sort of issues that warranted a conversation with the agency. Of those 500, 44 resulted in a fee or penalty. Issues in the other roughly 450 cases were worked out.

MPCA is working with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture under the banner of Minnesota Business First Stop to create a point of entry for farmers trying to expand from fewer than 1,000 animal units to greater than 1,000. These are generally individual farmers who want to expand to bring in another generation and they aren't used to operating in the regulatory construct of more than 1,000 animal units, Aasen said. Many are reluctant to talk to the MPCA because they have heard stories about how bad the agency is to work with.

This entry point in the agriculture department will help make connections between producers and the information and people they need to know about. It's always easier to have early conversations with any regulated party, he said.

Technically, producers can call upon the MDA for help, but Minnesota Business First Stop is a initiative of Gov. Mark Dayton to streamline the permitting process and encourage business growth and development.

Burn barrels

There are still a quarter million households in Minnesota where people burn their garbage.

This puts their them and their family at risk because of dioxins released in the burning of plastic. This risk is greatly reduced when plastic is burned at high temperatures in an incinerator in a controlled environment, Aasen said.

"So whether you care or not about the regulatory constraints, whether you care or not about the environment in total, if you care about your backyard, you don't want to burn plastic in your backyard," he said.

It used to be that trash haulers didn't reach into rural areas and that there wasn't a recycling option. Those reasons for burning no longer exist, Aasen said. Whether it's a drop-off center or an active collection system, every county does enable recycling. There is also trash collection.

MPCA is hearing stories that recycling collection sites function like the post office used to, giving people a reason to go to town and maybe do some shopping while there.

There is an exemption for burning agricultural waste, Aasen said, and MPCA is trying to create a recycling opportunity for all that plastic used on round bales and forages stored in bunkers.

Ag water certification

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency will be involved in the state's new ag water quality certification program.

The agency is involved through assessing the quality of waters on the front end and figuring out which subwatersheds have issues, Aasen said. The agency will come back with monitoring at a later date to see if what's been changed in the subwatershed is working to improve water quality.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture is recruiting members to serve on an advisory panel to establish the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program. Applications will be accepted through April 16 with the first meeting scheduled for early June.

Aasen said it's possible the first farmers could be certified by Farmfest in August. He doesn't think that deadline is impossible to meet.

"I think it's really simple," Aasen said. "We know there are explemary land managers out there, and we need to find one of them that's interested in participating in this conversation in a watershed where there aren't impairments, where there's not water quality degradation issues going on."

About 60 percent of the state's waters aren't impaired. The certification the farmer received would give them assurance they are meeting water quality standards for a yet to be determined number of years.