Measured approach to environmental regulation helped reclaim Mississippi river

November 11, 2014

As a result of the recent midterm elections, the public has heard a great deal about the impact environmental regulation may have on local businesses. While it is obvious that over-reaching regulations can have a stifling effect, the success that many moderate laws have had on improving industrial efficiencies and reducing waste largely goes unnoticed. 

To address this, the Star-Tribune recently explored the impact past regulatory efforts have had in the state of Minnesota. Many may recall that in the 1950s and 60s, Minneapolis and the Twin Cities were an industrial hub, with the Mississippi River paying the price for their progress. 

Before the passage of the U.S. Clean Air Act in 1970 and the U.S. Clean Water Act in 1972, the Mississippi was little more than a dumping ground for industrial waste. Not even carp could survive in its contaminated waters. Slaughterhouse waste, industrial sludge and raw sewage could be seen on the water's surface.

As the result of the new legislation, the river saw substantial upgrades to water quality control infrastructure designed to meet higher effluent standards. This included a separation of sanitary sewers and storm sewers, which reduced overflows, helping keep millions of gallons of sewage out of the river. 

An industrial waster pretreatment program was also initiated to reduce the amount of heavy metals finding their way to the river. In combination with other efforts, this led to heavy metal contamination being reduced by up to 70 percent, and pollution reduced by up to 90 percent. At the same time, other initiatives were pursued that addressed airborne pollution under the Clean Air Act.

As a result of these regulations and extensive remediation efforts, concentrations of airborne lead and carbon monoxide have dropped more than 90 percent, and concentrations of particulate matter have fallen more than 80 percent. 

Unfortunately, these results are often ignored, and environmental regulations are dismissed as "job killers." However, this dismissal fails to take into account the significant number of high-value jobs added as a result of environmental regulation. 

The federal Office of Management and Budget released estimates that conclude every dollar spent on reducing fine particulates in the air returns $30 in lower health care costs, and results in fewer lost workdays, asthma cases, heart attacks and strokes and premature deaths. 

Of course, environmental regulations are only successful when they have also effectively weighed the needs of industrial stakeholders. This is evidenced by the current economic performance of Minnesota, which was long derided for having "stifling" regulations, but now has emerged with a vibrant economy and robust job growth. Environmental consultants can help legislators find the balance between economic and environmental needs.