Fresh, May 28, 2024: Minnesota Lawmakers Expand Protections For Hundreds of Miles of Waterways

May 28, 2024

Fresh is a biweekly newsletter from Circle of Blue that unpacks the biggest international, state, and local policy news stories facing the Great Lakes region today. Sign up for Fresh: A Great Lakes Policy Briefing, straight to your inbox, every other Tuesday.

— Christian Thorsberg, Interim Fresh Editor

This Week’s Watersheds

  • A new project on the outskirts of Detroit to protect Lake St. Clair from sewage discharge during storms makes its much-anticipated opening. 
  • In a new bill, Minnesota lawmakers clarified vague language that had previously kept some 640 miles of creeks and streams from being classified as public waters. 
  • At the Ports of Indiana-Burns Harbor in northwest Indiana, more than $77 million of major development projects are now underway.
  • More than a year after a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, the EPA has fined the Norfolk Southern Rail Company $15 million, the maximum amount allowable.

Conservationists are pushing for greener maritime transportation on the Detroit River, after a new report details high carbon emissions from traffic at its port terminals.

“When you talk about marine traffic on our waterways leading to climate change, I’m sure most people wouldn’t even understand what you’re talking about.” – Theresa Landrum, a resident of Southwest Detroit, one of the state’s most polluted neighborhoods.

A new, year-long environmental study of two dozen terminals at the Port of Detroit reveals a significant carbon footprint — 27,869 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent released per year — as a result of maritime trade and port activity, Bridge Detroit reports

Nearby neighborhoods feel the burden of pollution from 28 miles of terminals strung along the river’s shores. Poor air quality from truck traffic has led to “off-the-charts” rates of asthma and high concentrations of sulfur. 

“It’s not the safest place to live or work or be,” Mark Schrupp, Port of Detroit/Wayne County Authority executive director, tells Bridge Detroit. “And so we’re trying to push things in the right direction.”

The study is the first step, port authority officials say, in making the entire Port of Detroit carbon-neutral by 2040.

Fresh from the Great Lakes News Collaborative

  • Kalamazoo proposes $51 million plan to filter PFAS — Michigan Public
  • Disappointed dogs, sad skiers, frustrated fishermen — Great Lakes Now
  • Robots at work cleaning trash from Michigan beaches — Bridge Michigan
  • Bald eagles nearly died out. What can we learn from their return to the southern Great Lakes? — The Narwhal

Bridge Michigan, Circle of Blue, Great Lakes Now at Detroit Public Television, Michigan Public and The Narwhal work together to report on the most pressing threats to the Great Lakes region’s water. This independent journalism is supported by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. Find all the work here.

Minnesota’s Waters Gain Protections

The aptly named Limbo Creek, which flows through the farming community of Renville County, Minnesota, had been the center of attention for the last several years for its uncertain status as a public water. Despite meeting the criteria for being a public water — and thus requiring an environmental review before any projects affected it — it was omitted from the state’s inventory of public waters, a list created in the 1980s that many people say is outdated. Without being on that list, it could be drained and altered without a public waters work permit. 

In 2022, the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld a decision that granted Limbo Creek status as a public water, and the greater environmental protections that followed, Minnesota Public Radio reports.

And as this year’s state legislative session comes to a close, Minnesota lawmakers used Limbo Creek’s momentum to grant similar protections to other waterways that are not listed in the public water inventory, but meet the requirements. In all, this accounts for some 640 miles of creeks and streams. The law also allocates $8 million over the next eight years to the Department of Natural Resources to update the public waters inventory.

In the News

Lake St. Clair: When heavy rains hit metropolitan Detroit, the city historically lacked the necessary underground infrastructure to collect and store floodwaters, WDIV-TV reports. To make room for the sudden influx of stormwater, municipalities were forced to release raw sewage into nearby Lake St. Clair. But after two years of construction and $12.5 million spent, a new, revamped sewer system in St. Clair Shores, Michigan, made its grand opening last week. Officials are confident that the city’s basements will flood less, and sewer overflows into the lake will decrease by between 10 percent and 15 percent. 

Norfolk Southern: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has fined the railroad company $15 million, the largest amount allowed under the Clean Water Act, for its train derailment last year that caused what many say is incalculable harm to the waters, ecology, and public health in East Palestine, Ohio, AP reports. But the fine is a mere drop in the bucket compared to the $1.7 billion the company is expected to pay “in total costs related to the derailment,” including a $600 million class-action settlement with the community’s residents and a $315 million settlement with the federal government. The company will also be paying $30 million for the creation of a long-term surface water and groundwater monitoring program in the area.

Looking Ahead

Burns Harbor: A record-setting construction season is now underway at the northwest Indiana port, where more than $77 million has been spent to expand infrastructure along Lake Michigan, Maritime Logistics Professionals report. Among the improvements are “a highway bridge entering the port, three new ship berths, a new bulk warehouse, two new railyards, industrial site development, and extensive dock and rail rehabilitation.”

Upcoming Events

June 2 – 6 — Society for Freshwater Science Annual Meeting — learn more

June 5 – 6 — Great Lakes Fishery Commission Annual Meeting 2024 — learn more

June 12 — Let’s Talk Lake Ontario: Stemming the Tide – Addressing Invasive Plants Around Lake Ontario — learn more

June 24 – 27 — WEDA Dredging Summit & Expo ’24 — learn more

Other News

Fish Kill: Local officials are continuing to investigate the extent of a fish kill that occurred in Monroe County, Wisconsin, last week, after an undetermined amount of manure from a dairy farm that affected a little over two miles of waterways, Wisconsin Public Radio reports

Mississippi River-St. Cloud Watershed: A new report suggests that the health of the watershed — which includes some 374 lakes and more than 900 miles of streams and rivers — is slowly improving, though development and pollution remain ongoing threats to the precious central Minnesota waterways, Minnesota Public Radio reports.   

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