Neal St. Anthony
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The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency makes headlines on controversies such as taconite waste dumping in Lake Superior or the review of Enbridge's updated pipeline across northern Minnesota.

But out of the spotlight, the MPCA is picking up honors for the more mundane, but effective, work with environmental, corporate and citizen stakeholders to prevent or reduce pollution.

This fall, it was the first public agency honored in 29 years by the Performance Excellence Network. The group bestowed its highest award to the MPCA for improvements in management, workplace engagement and use of data to drive decisions.

"This started years before me," said MPCA Commissioner Laura Bishop, who was Best Buy Co.'s chief sustainability officer before appointed by Gov. Tim Walz nearly two years ago. "We are here to protect our natural resources.

"We also are doing more online services, including permitting. We are more flexible. And when we consider permits, we look at whether there is harm in delay, such as an environmental issue or whether there is an environmental-justice issue. We use more technology. And we are more transparent on our website."

CEO Brian Lassiter of PEN said the organization's assessment of MPCA, which uses criteria from the Malcolm Baldrige quality award process, revealed that its strategies helped decrease greenhouse gas emissions in the air and phosphorus concentrations in surface waters.

PEN also praised MPCA's water improvement efforts that have resulted in 65% of Minnesota waters meeting recreational-use standards, compared with 60% nationally.

"MPCA's participation in 'Baldrige' speaks to commitment to transparency and its commitment to optimizing resources for the benefit of Minnesota residents and taxpayers,'' Lassiter said in an e-mail.

"MPCA leadership has created a culture of innovation, allowing and empowering the workforce to make changes to processes that create value for the state.

"MPCA leaders have demonstrated that using a validated, evidence-based approach brings discipline, rigor and a systemic way of managing the agency that transcends specific leaders at the helm."

The Baldrige process and awards are based on a 35-year-old framework developed by U.S. Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige in the 1980s. It is used by thousands of businesses and organizations to improve their performance and product quality.

The MPCA, with a 2020-21 budget of $724.2 million, has nearly 900 employees. That's down about 75 from a decade ago. More than 10% of its budget comes from pollution-case settlements money with 3M Co. and Volkswagen.

And it has leveraged its impact through innovative programs with partners.

That includes Minnesota Environmental Initiative's work with business providers to dramatically cut diesel exhaust from thousands of school buses.

It has expanded this year to voluntary repairs of older vehicles that generate 75% of emissions. That occurs largely in inner-city neighborhoods, disproportionately populated by people of color.

"We have more technology and tools and environmental justice is important to us," Bishop said.

"There has to be a balance between speed and effectiveness. In the end, our mission is to protect and improve environment and human health. We also will be tough when our corporate partners aren't complying."

That would include the well-publicized Northern Metals plant in Minneapolis and the prolonged case of Water Gremlin of White Bear Township that, too slowly for neighbors, resulted in a remedy and a $7 million settlement.

Bishop likes to point to MPCA's innovative work with city of Luverne to attract new business. MPCA set water standards for the Rock River in Luverne that paved the way for Premium Iowa Pork to relocate to Luverne.

This standard addressed wastewater treatment and water quality.

The company, now Premium Minnesota Pork, created 300 jobs and is talking about an additional $1 million investment that would add another 100 jobs.

Luverne got jobs, an upgraded water-treatment plant and cleaner water with state and private investment.

"Premium Minnesota Pork was willing to invest $30 million in a shuttered food-processing facility in Luverne and also contribute $6.5 million to the city to help with the cost of upgrading our old wastewater treatment plant," Mayor Patrick Baustian wrote several legislators in August.

He credited Bishop with being a "true public servant" who spent time listening, collaborating and constructing an environmental-and-economic development solution.

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at