Twin Cities Set Fast `Green' Pace
Public willing to pay for clean environment. MINNEAPOLIS-ST. PAUL
WHEN you walk down Nicollet Mall, the nation's largest downtown strollway, look up at Minneapolis's network of walkways - but keep an eye out for button-battery recycling boxes inside the stores you pass. As you drive down St. Paul's Summit Avenue, gaze at the turn-of-the-century homes - but notice the blue garbage recycling containers on the manicured front lawns.
Welcome to the Twin Cities, a metropolitan area of 2.2 million that has good reason to be dubbed the nation's model environmental metropolis. Or, make that reasons. For example, within the Twin Cities:
Cans, newspaper, and glass are recycled.
A garbage-burning incinerator generates electricity.
Nearly all waste water and storm sewers are separate.
Household hazardous wastes are collected.
Special bus lanes go against traffic, and lights are on a central computer system cutting down on wasteful stop-and-go driving.
Extensive use of sound boards along freeways shield residential areas from roadway noise.
An energy-efficient district system heats several dozen buildings.
Auto batteries, tires, and used oil are collected.
This is not to say the Twin Cities area is an environmental nirvana.
Minneapolis's garbage incinerator, which opened this year, is drawing mixed reviews. Environmentalists, businesses, and elected officials are displeased about various parts of controversial legislation mandating that plastic packaging be biodegradable, recyclable, or returnable. And plans for a light-rail system connecting the two cities still are tacked firmly to the drawing board, leading to increased air and soil pollution from cars. Doing `the entire range'
But most experts agree that the environmental accomplishments to date have been impressive.
``The amazing thing is that we've done the entire range,'' says William Barnhart, legislative liaison at Minneapolis's City Hall. ``Some efforts go back 20 or more years.''
And more programs are due to be instituted within the next 12 months. In addition to the soon-to-be enacted plastics law, legislation dealing with ozone-depleting choloflourocarbons and a motorcycle inspection law are expected.
While it may be impossible to say exactly why the Twin Cities area is such fertile soil for environmental programs, city and county officials say that many residents come from farming backgrounds and often have roots to the land.
Michael Trdan was a city planner when Minneapolis launched its recycling program. In the early 1980s local politicians assumed people would not be interested in recycling, he says.
``But people here are different,'' Mr. Trdan says. `` There's an expectation here that we have clean air, clean water, and that we not pollute the land. There are a lot of Swedes and Norwegians here, and they love to keep things clean!''
Such a homogeneous population has demonstrated an environmental ethic by putting its money where its mouth is. The state usually ranks in the top five to 10 in tax burden. Politicians are not dissuaded from enacting tough laws simply because they will cost more.
``This produces a political climate that elects people willing to take on environmental issues,'' Mr. Barnhart says. As one elected official put it, ``Don't forget, people here thought Hubert Humphrey was too conservative.''
Environmental success has created problems, however. A ``financial rigor mortis'' has set in at the federal level when it comes to availability of money for environmental projects, one official says. State funds are increasingly hard to come by even as the public demands more environmental accountability.
As a result, some county employees and officials are concerned the Twin Cities may have created an environmental ``monster.''
``We really convinced people that recycling was a good thing to do and that we should do more of it,'' says Carl Michaud, Hennepin County's recycling coordinator. ``Now people are asking why we're not doing more things, and we can't keep up with the demand.''
Not only is the area politically progressive on environmental issues, but the region has never been dominated by old-line manufacturing industries that helped pollute other upper Midwest cities. Thus, people here have been used to blue skies.
And when aircraft from the Minneapolis airport make those blue skies noisy, Steve Cramer, city council member from Ward 3, says there is immediate pressure from residents to find different flight patterns.
``We're now looking into using quieter stage-3 aircraft,'' Mr. Cramer admits, referring to Boeing 757s and European Airbuses. Penalties for polluters
Elected officials have enacted strict guidelines on everything from acceptable noise levels to groundwater contamination. Companies operating within the Twin Cities often are subject to $20 registration fees on compulsory pollution-control equipment. In addition, firms are monitored to assure that pollution guidelines are met.
While stiff fines and jail terms can be levied against polluting companies, $200 misdemeanor fines are more common, says Glenn Kiecker, environmental review supervisor for Minneapolis.
He says the city ``does not want to create unfair competitive advantages'' for other regions by buckling down at home. But he admits that within the past five years several companies and ``about 1,000 jobs'' have relocated, largely over concerns about regulation.
Still, ``we just have to follow our conscience,'' Mr. Keicker says.
A number of officials say stricter pollution enforcement is needed. Despite its usually clear skies, Minneapolis air quality does not always meet federal clean-air guidelines.
Carol Johnson, councilor from the 13th Ward in Minneapolis, complains bitterly about the city's new $108-million garbage-burning steam and electric power generating plant. She says the plant plays a major role in lowering the Twin Cities' air quality.
``While we're well ahead [in environmental quality] of other states, we haven't been as vigilant as we should have been,'' Mrs. Johnson says. ``Enforcement isn't as good as it should be.''
Jim Hayek, Minneapolis's director of water works, says he has not seen any significant deterioration in water quality during the past 20 years. Still, Johnson says the public perception is that water quality is being degraded. As a result, she continues to push for stricter local legislation and enforcement.
But any further environmental initiatives will be costly; many officials are pessimistic that the Twin Cities can extend its list of improvements.
``Social services and public infrastructure demands are piling up,'' Barnhart says. ``We've done a lot in the environment. Maybe now we can spend the next 20 years letting others catch up with us.
``I get a little negative for the future. We've done about all that we can. Lifestyle changes now are needed. While we're doing a lot of recycling, little is being done to reduce consumption,'' he adds.
Despite the costly environmental road ahead, grassroots support continues from groups like St. Paul's Neighborhood Energy Consortium.
Jim Scheibel, St. Paul's mayor, says his city tries to keep environment programs community-based. The key to continued success is keeping neighborhood people directly involved, he says.
After only three months on the job, he says he is optimistic environmental progress will continue.
``We keep an emphasis on quality of life - art, culture, and the environment,'' the mayor says. ``I grew up here. I want to stay here. And I want to make sure that future generations can share in that same quality of life.''