Editorial Roundup: Interference warranted to tackle contamination

Published 8:50 pm Tuesday, November 14, 2023

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s decision that Minnesota needs to do more to make water safer in the southeast region is a telling sign of how state agencies have to work more collaboratively and efficiently.

A coalition of groups concerned about water quality petitioned the EPA to weigh in on the nitrate contamination problem after being frustrated by the state’s patchwork approach to the issue, according to MPR News.

Water contamination from nitrates in farm country is not a new problem. Fertilizer and manure application to fields is known to run off into waterways and down into aquifers, affecting drinking water. In the southeast part of the state, the geology of the area with its sinkholes and fractured bedrock makes contamination a particularly prominent problem. The EPA estimates more than 9,000 residents were or are still at risk of consuming water at or above the maximum contaminant level for nitrate.

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High nitrate levels in drinking water pose a health risk, especially to pregnant women and infants who can develop a sometimes fatal condition called blue baby syndrome, which affects the body’s ability to circulate oxygen. Research also has linked nitrate exposure to colorectal cancer, thyroid disease and neural tube defects.

The petitioners say state agencies have relied mainly on voluntary approaches to get farmers to reduce nitrogen pollution, which they say haven’t worked. The EPA said the state needs to take additional steps to resolve the problem, addressing its letter to commissioners of the state departments of health, agriculture and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

The federal agency’s intervention needs to be the catalyst to help Minnesotans get the safe drinking water they deserve. The EPA said Minnesota officials should provide immediate notice to residents whose wells have nitrate levels at or above the safe level.

Disappointingly, 1st District Congressman Brad Finstad, R-New Ulm, criticized the EPA for inspecting farms in his district, basically telling the agency to mind its own business. “It is completely unacceptable that EPA is targeting Minnesota family farmers at the behest of environmental extremists,” Finstad stated in a news release.

But safe water is the EPA’s business under the Safe Drinking Water Act. And if the state agencies aren’t doing their jobs — or aren’t doing them quickly enough to protect public heath — then someone needs to get them on task. Despite Finstad, who is a farmer, accusing the federal agency of being anti-farmer for trying to control water contamination, this action isn’t anti-agriculture; it’s pro-health. Farmers, and their family members, drink water, too.

No one is saying good farmers don’t do their best to control fertilizer runoff, but obviously, controls now in place are not sufficient if water is commonly contaminated in the region. Prevention of a problem is always a better plan than reaction to it.

The state has 30 days to respond to the EPA with a timeline for the plan and other actions outlined by the federal agency. The plan must address how Minnesota will identify, contact, test drinking water and offer alternative water to all impacted persons in the region.

Minnesotans deserve safe water; the EPA action was not only warranted but was its responsibility in making sure the law is followed to protect public health.

— Mankato Free Press, Nov. 13

About Editorial Roundup

Editorials from newspapers around the state of Minnesota.

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