Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Water ethics -- transparency feeds trust?

Earlier this week the Duluth newspaper published a story that, I believe, presents some wonderful opportunities to explore issues Minnesota faces as we move ahead with Governor Dayton's Water Ethic approach to water quality. [Full disclosure, at one time, years ago, I worked for the Twin Cities Metro Council, trying to develop alternatives to the incineration of wastewater sludge from the Metro plant.] According to the story, a farmer in a northern township is being hindered from participation in the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District's (WLSSD) biosolids utilization program because township board members, and some residents, are concerned about potential effects on local waters, both surface and groundwater. WLSSD and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency [MPCA] claim the biosolds program is safe and the rules are being followed.

St. Louis River at Duluth harbor
St. Louis River at Duluth harbor
Photo by J. Harrington

One issue I can see is that this is the same MPCA that is way behind in dealing with taconite mine water discharge permits, many of which only call for sampling the discharge water. That doesn't instill me with confidence and may affect the agency's credibility with others, like local township boards? Furthermore, although the WLSSD's web site has a general description of the biosolids program, I could find no information on testing, sampling, quality assurance or similar measures for their biosolids product. Since the water discharged to the St. Louis River meets standards for heavy metals, I wonder if any do end up in the biosolids. (The heavy metals could come from industrial wastewater streams, urban stormwater or both, or neither. We don't know.) No explanatory information seems to be available on the web site.

So, here we have several government entities, all interested in protecting the environment. Each has a slightly different group of stakeholders, with varying concerns and priorities. WLSSD is now emphasizing that what they do is legal, within their MPCA permit, and on what basis can the township stop the farmer's use. That reads to me as if what should be an issue that all parties could resolve factually, given enough facts and transparent access to them, may become a court case. This triggers, in my mind, the need to point out there are resounding gaps between what's legal and what's ethical.
  • Is it ethical to preclude the responsible use of (processed) waste material that could be a resource out of place? (We need more reduce, reuse, recycle.)
  • Is it ethical to issue "legal" discharge permits that don't really protect water quality?
  • Is it ethical for any legislature to supplant the decisions and process of a state agency responsible for the implementation of a federally delegated program? (I am not a lawyer but this also raises some fascinating constitutional questions in the back of my mind.)
Minnesotan's are going to need, I believe, to get accustomed to communicating more openly and honestly than we're used to if this Water Ethics approach is to have a chance. Let me be absolutely clear: I want it to succeed. We could probably next stand to have a major convocation about the relationships among ethics, values, politics and legalities. Where do I register?

Lost and Found

Ron Padgett, 1942

                                       Man has lost his gods.
                                       If he loses his dignity,
                                       it’s all over.


I said that.

What did I mean?
First, that the belief
in divinity has almost
disappeared.

By dignity
I meant mutual
self-respect, the sense
that we have some right
to be here and that
there is value in it.
(Values are where
the gods went
when they died.)

My dog Susie doesn’t seem
to have any values, but she does
have Pat and me, gods
she gets to play with and bark at.


About this poem:
“In the pile of miscellaneous papers always on my desk I found a scrap that contained the words in this poem’s epigraph, and I vaguely remembered having scribbled them down. That triggered the poem’s beginning: ‘I said that.' I liked the unusual idea of quoting oneself in an epigraph. By the way, the corny play on god/dog was unintentional.”

Ron Padgett

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