How the MPCA controls pollution

As a regulatory agency, the MPCA's job is to limit pollution caused by businesses, organizations and individuals in order to protect human health and the environment. We develop regulations, provide education and technical assistance to help people meet these regulations, and enforce them if the need arises. More and more, the focus is also on preventing pollution, rather than just controlling it.

View of a wetlandThe MPCA's activities include:

  • testing and research to identify problems,
  • developing environmental priorities and strategies,
  • setting standards and developing rules to protect people and the environment,
  • developing permits to control activities that affect the environment,
  • providing technical assistance and training,
  • outreach and education to schools, organizations and the general public,
  • encouraging and integrating pollution-prevention efforts,
  • responding to emergencies,
  • taking enforcement action in the event of violations.

Here's a more detailed look at what we do.

Testing and research to identify problems

Testing for contaminated sedimentsTo determine what kinds of pollution control measures are necessary and how effective those measures are, the MPCA regularly monitors and samples air, water and soil at hundreds of sites across the state. The agency also monitors other environmental issues "out in the field," working with individuals, companies and other government agencies to develop watershed basin planning, control erosion, study noise pollution and address other community and area-wide issues.

Learn more on the environmental monitoring page.

Developing environmental priorities and strategies

MPCA leaders have the primary responsibility for setting priorities and allocating resources at a statewide level. The PDF icon Environmental Analysis and Outcomes Division recommends new or revised statewide goals to decisionmakers based on evaluations of environmental results and program effectiveness.

Setting standards and developing rules

Searching a wetland for deformed frogsWith measurements in hand, the MPCA sets standards that protect the environment and develops rules based on those standards. When monitoring indicates that current rules are not effectively controlling pollution problems, or when new problems are discovered, MPCA rules are changed in response to the information. Monitoring also helps the agency set its priorities by showing where the most serious problems are.

Developing and issuing permits

Permits protect the environment by limiting pollution emitted by some businesses and industries. A permit is a regulatory tool that sets specific goals for specific activities — they set goals for the prevention, control or cleanup of pollution; limit releases of pollutants; direct construction or operation of a facility; and control storage, collecting, transporting and processing of waste.

The agency's environmental review staff examine plans for major development projects that might affect the environment in order to foresee and prevent environmental damage. The review is a one- or two-step process designed to allow development to occur with any needed environmental safeguards included in the operating permits.

The first step in the process is the preparation of an Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) by the person or organization proposing the project and the unit of government (such as a city or county) that is responsible for overseeing the project.

If the EAW indicates there is a possibility of environmental damage from the project, then an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) must be prepared to review potential damage and to identify how it can be prevented. Public comment is invited at several stages of the environmental review process.

No permit for a proposed project may be issued until the process has been completed; however, most projects that require environmental permits do not require an environmental review. Some projects automatically require an EAW, and a few, such as building an electric plant or petroleum refinery, automatically require an EIS. Citizens may also petition the state Environmental Quality Board for an environmental review if they believe a proposed project may damage the environment.

The MPCA website has additional information about the environmental review process.

Providing technical assistance and training

MeetingInformation and training services provided by MPCA reach thousands of Minnesota's businesses, organizations and individuals each year. The MPCA helps the regulated community meet the requirements of pollution rules using written materials, workshops, informational phone lines, technical newsletters, conferences and speakers.

In addition, most of this information is available through this Web site, allowing anyone to access these materials at their convenience and free of charge.

The MPCA library is also open to the public for on-premise use of the materials. Available documents include more than 70,000 EPA publications, copies of most MPCA publications and online computer access to over 300 databases and 3,500 books, directories and technical documents.

Public education and outreach

Each year, the agency receives and responds to thousands of requests from teachers, students, civic organizations, businesses and others for brochures, fact sheets, information and speakers on environmental topics.

In addition to the agency's library, the MPCA's Public Information Office keeps copies of dozens of different publications from a variety of organizations on topics of common interest to Minnesotans, such as global climate change, fishing advisories and waste reduction.

The MPCA also provides a number of information and educational services to the public and the news media, locally and state-wide, on current environmental issues and strategies of interest to the public.

To learn more, contact the MPCA's Public Information Office at 651-757-2662 or toll-free at 800-657-3864.

Encouraging pollution prevention

The 1990 Minnesota Toxic Pollution Prevention Act established a state policy encouraging pollution prevention — eliminating or reducing hazardous and toxic pollutants at the source. The MPCA is currently evaluating ways to integrate pollution prevention into the existing system of environmental regulations. For instance, when a penalty is issued by the agency it may include one or more Supplemental Environmental Projects involving pollution prevention.

Among its other efforts, the MPCA makes it a priority to provide technical assistance and education to help businesses that produce hazardous wastes find ways to reduce or recycle those wastes, to encourage citizens to buy products with less packaging, and to find ways for wastewater treatment plants to reduce problems caused by heavy rains.

For more information about this topic, visit the MPCA's pollution prevention page.

Responding to emergencies

Spill from an overturned tanker truckSometimes oil leaks, chemical spills, or air pollution emergencies require immediate action. MPCA staff are on-call 24 hours a day to respond to environmental emergencies in order to make sure that the problem is cleaned up or contained as soon as possible. Emergency response staff oversee short- and long-term cleanups, and may follow through with enforcement action if the spill should have been prevented.

Citizens are encouraged to report spills and other environmental emergencies to the MPCA by calling the Minnesota State Duty Officer at 651-649-5451 or toll-free at 1-800-422-0798.

Individuals can also report potential pollution problems using this website's citizen complaint form.

Cleanup and site remediation

The MPCA also works to clean up past waste disposal problems that can affect our land, air and water: old landfills, leaking underground storage tanks, construction debris or contaminated industrial properties. Through the state and federal Superfund laws and a variety of innovative voluntary cleanup programs that offer incentives to potential developers, the MPCA's extensive site remediation programs work effectively to not only remove environmental hazards but also to return land to safe and productive use.

Taking enforcement action

Most of the people, businesses and organizations the MPCA regulates are informed about pollution and want to follow the rules. The MPCA's first goal is to help businesses meet environmental standards through information, training and technical assistance. Enforcement actions are reserved for situations in which those options have failed and violations have occurred. Our job is to serve the public in protecting and improving Minnesota's environment; and while there are many tools available to us, enforcement is still an important part of the job.

In order to protect the air, water and land, the MPCA works to:

  • prevent violations when possible and correct violations as soon as possible;
  • prevent future violations by the same party or other parties;
  • clean up past pollution problems and return land to productive use;
  • be fair to the regulated community by treating similar violations equally;
  • punish serious, repeat, long-standing, and intentional violations
  • produce the greatest environmental benefit by effectively allocating enforcement staff and funds.