See more of the story

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has issued a broad emergency “flexibility” policy to companies and other permit holders across Minnesota struggling to comply with environmental regulations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the MPCA’s policy, rolled out Friday, is far less permissive than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s decision Thursday to waive enforcement of federal pollution regulations across the country.

The sweeping EPA move prompted outrage among environmental groups, which fear it gives industry a license to pollute. The new federal policy might not affect Minnesota as much as other states, because the MPCA handles enforcement for the vast majority of federal environmental regulations.

Minnesota’s emergency policy is tighter than the EPA’s, MPCA Assistant Commissioner Kirk Koudelka said in an interview Friday. The agency is not issuing a blanket exemption from environmental regulation, he said, but what he called a“flexibility procedure” that creates a process for a company with an air or water permit, for example, to call or e-mail the MPCA about a compliance problem and work out a fix.

“It would require state and MPCA approval before implementing alternative measures,” Koudelka said. “They have to talk to us. They can’t just do it on their own. That’s the difference.”

The MPCA’s new flexible enforcement policy covers tens of thousands of permit holders across the state, such as water treatment plants, manufacturing operations, power plants and large dairy or hog operations.

Koudelka said the MPCA took similar, albeit much more limited, action during the Red River floods and recent flooding in southern Minnesota. During those emergencies, the operators of some flooded landfills needed to extend their hours to meet the needs of the community, or needed to store more waste on site than what their permits allowed, and the MPCA worked with them.

“We’ve demonstrated in Minnesota that we can successfully balance protection of human health and the environment and provide regulatory flexibility during other emergencies,” Koudelka said Friday.

The stay-at-home requirement and need for social distancing could also affect companies with certain licenses, such as certifications for wastewater plant operators, if continuing education classes are canceled.

A coalition of nearly two dozen groups sent the EPA a letter Friday expressing their opposition to its move.

“It’s disgusting that the Trump EPA refuses to pause in its push to gut laws keeping our air and water safe but is happy to take a break from enforcing them,” Hannah Connor, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement about the letter.

Former EPA director of civil enforcement Eric Schaeffer, now with the Environmental Integrity Project, said: “It is not clear why refineries, chemical plants, and other facilities that continue to operate and keep their employees on the production line will no longer have the staff or time they need to comply with environmental laws.”