Before there was an Earth Day or even a federal environmental agency, the Minnesota Legislature recognized the need to protect the state’s environment, giving the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) the authority to begin controlling pollution problems in the state. Protection of water resources actually started in 1945, when the Legislature established the Water Pollution Control Commission to encourage communities to build wastewater treatment plants because too many communities dumped raw sewage into lakes and rivers.
Then in 1962, Minnesota witnessed two of the most catastrophic oil spills in the history of the state.
- In December, sub-zero temperatures caused a pipeline break at Richards Oil in Savage. The ruptured line released a million gallons of oil into the Mississippi River. Shortly thereafter, a storage tank at the Honeymead plant in Mankato burst, releasing more than three million gallons of soy oil onto the ice of the Minnesota River. Oil from both spills slowly traveled downstream.
- With the spring thaw, tragic results were evident. Governor Rolvaag activated the National Guard to coordinate cleanup (a project known as Operation Save-a-Duck), and citizens volunteered to rescue and rehabilitate oil-covered ducks. Unfortunately, it was not enough. The survival rate of oil-covered ducks was dismally small. Despite everyone’s best efforts, more than 10,000 waterfowl and countless beaver, muskrats, turtles, and fish died.
In 1967, to address the variety and complexity of environmental problems, the Legislature replaced the Water Pollution Control Commission with the MPCA and added authority over air pollution and solid waste disposal.
It was also a spill that led to the first Earth Day. In 1969 U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin conceived the idea of Earth Day after witnessing the ravages of a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, according to the Earth Day Network. Inspired by the student anti-war movement, he marshaled bi-partisan forces to launch a national “teach-in” on the environment in 1970.
“As a result, on the 22nd of April, 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment in massive coast-to-coast rallies. Thousands of colleges and universities organized protests against the deterioration of the environment. Groups that had been fighting against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways, the loss of wilderness, and the extinction of wildlife suddenly realized they shared common values,” the website reads.
“Earth Day 1970 achieved a rare political alignment, enlisting support from Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, city slickers and farmers, tycoons and labor leaders. The first Earth Day led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.”
Today, citizens are again taking to the streets, parks and auditoriums, this time to support science, important safeguards already in place, and existing funding levels:
- Letter: MN anti-environment bills put politics ahead of science by MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine in the West Central Tribune
- On Water Action Day, a flood of citizens washes through the Minnesota Capitol on MinnPost
- Why Former U.S Chief Data Scientist, D.J. Patil, Is Marching and You Should Too on the March for Science website
As the MPCA celebrates 50 years, the variety and complexity of environmental problems has changed, however our vision remains the same: Clean water, air and land support healthy communities and ecosystems, and a strong economy in Minnesota.