Hopeful Sign – MPCA Commissioner Says “Facts” Will Determine Policy

As a frequent skeptic about the capture of regulatory agencies by the regulated parties, I was delighted to learn that Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) Commissioner Paul Aasen has been telling agency leadership that facts matter.

In an internal letter in November summarizing progress on strategic goals in 2011, Commissioner Aasen said the following:

“When we can dive in and do the technical work, good things happen. . . So the challenge remains the same, collect the facts, draw the conclusions and then use those facts to inform the public debate. We will have to continue our fact finding and try to add to our ability to inform policy and decisions.”

Commissioner Aasen also cited with approval news coverage of climate change, celebrating the “fact come-back after the past years of often fact-free debate” and that, with the reporting on climate change, “The ‘facts’ won another victory last week.”

Commissioner Aasen closed his letter to MPCA colleagues saying, “Thanks for your hard work gathering the facts. It shows in our strategic review and it will always win out in the end.”

From my perspective as a public interest environmental lawyer, it has often seemed that political pressure and avoidance of conflict with powerful industries has informed Minnesota’s regulatory policy and decisions more than facts. Technical staff have been bypassed or their findings buried in order to meet the demands of regulated parties, which the Agency has mistakenly served as their “customers.” The result has been extensive paperwork justifying continued pollution and avoidance of key issues that degrade natural resources and impair public health.

I am hopeful that Commissioner Aasen’s elevation of the importance of facts signals a change in “business as usual.” If MPCA leaders encourage staff to develop facts about pollution and rigorously apply legal standards, there is a fighting chance that both the facts and the public interest are likely to “win out” in the end.

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