#TBT: Fifty-five Years Ago, Minnesota Had Few Tools to Respond to River Pollution
There has been a lot written recently about impending changes at the Environmental Protection Agency under the new Presidential administration. A quick look into the entries at the Minnesota Historical Society’s MNopedia shows that pollution of the Mississippi River was a substantial public concern in 1962-63, nearly a decade before the 1970 establishment of the EPA through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
The MNopedia article “Mississippi River Oil Spill, 1962-1963,” by Joseph Manulik (who was a U of MN Honors student when he wrote the piece) details how two spills, both on the Minnesota River, wreaked havoc downstream. Manulik makes the clear point that the State of Minnesota had poor policy tools to deal with environmental crises. The spilled oil fouled waterbird habitat as far down the Mississippi as Lake Pepin, killing thousands of ducks and wrecking the aquatic ecology of the river for nearly 100 miles. But the only state remedy could not be put into action until a health hazard to humans was declared. At this point in history, very few people ventured near the river, so the state was left with makeshift remedies, including a short-lived involvement of the National Guard. There was no recourse in state or federal law to hold the industrial sites responsible for the oil spills responsible for the accidents.
There is, of course, a lot of posturing and exaggeration about policy directions at the EPA. But it does seem clear that there is little appetite to return to a pre-EPA world, where rivers burned, waterfowl suffocated, and polluters were held unaccountable.