Minnesota is a state rich in natural beauty. Its thousands of lakes and rivers teem with fish. Its woodlands provide homes for all kinds of animals, from bears to bluebirds. Nearly one-fifth of the state is covered in wetlands, lush with tall grasses where waterfowl swim and nest.
Pollution—harmful substances entering the environment—threatens these beautiful settings. Exhaust from vehicles and smoke from chimneys spread a blanket of smog over the landscape. Mercury poisons the fish in the state’s lakes. Oil spills and toxic chemicals can sicken or kill wildlife. And they harm the health of the state’s human residents, too.
Minnesota is less polluted than many other states. A 2021 ranking in U.S. News and World Report rated is the thirteenth cleanest out of all 50 states. It also ranked twelfth for air and water quality. However, when you look at specific pollutants, there are a few dim spots in this bright picture.
One of Minnesota’s nicknames is the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Unfortunately, those lakes—not to mention rivers, reservoirs, and beaches—could be cleaner. About 40% of the state’s waters are unsafe for at least one use—drinking, swimming, or fishing.
The good news is that the state’s groundwater, which supplies drinking water for most Minnesotans, is pretty clean. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says drinking water for 99% of state residents met federal safety standards in 2022.
According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), Minnesota’s air meets all federal air quality standards. However, levels of pollution below these limits can still endanger people’s health. A 2022 report from the American Lung Association (ALA) gave Minnesota mixed ratings for its air quality. The report looked at levels of two air pollutants linked to lung problems: ozone and fine particles. The ALA gave A or B grades to most of the 15 counties it rated for ozone levels. But when it came to fine particles, 4 out of 17 counties rated got failing grades.
Land can become polluted through spills of oil and harmful chemicals that seep into soil and groundwater. One major measure of land pollution is the EPA’s annual Toxic Release Inventory (TRI). According to the TRI, Minnesota had 21.9 million pounds of toxic releases in 2021, including 7 million pounds on land. That sounds like a lot, but it’s less per square mile than most states. Out of 56 states and territories covered in the TRI, Minnesota’s pollution levels were 13th from the bottom.
Some pollution in Minnesota comes from large single sources, such as factories or power plants. However, most of it comes from smaller sources such as homes and vehicles. Each individual home or car pollutes only a little, but these little bits add up. This kind of pollution is harder to tackle because it’s spread all over the state.
According to the MPCA, nearly half of all air pollution in Minnesota comes from vehicles and heavy-duty equipment. That includes cars, trucks, trains, boats, snowmobiles, and equipment used in farming and construction. Their engines produce a variety of pollutants, including ozone, fine particles, and greenhouse gases responsible for climate change. Old diesel engines are the dirtiest of all, churning out nearly twice as much particle pollution as newer ones.
Factories and power plants that burn fossil fuels pollute the air through their smokestacks. Although these facilities are cleaner than they used to be, they still cause about 20% of Minnesota’s air pollution. Coal-burning facilities are the worst offenders. Along with other pollutants, they emit mercury into the air, which mixes with rainfall to pollute the water. Mercury in the water builds up in fish, making them unsafe to eat.
Wood smoke can enter the atmosphere from wildfires, campfires, or home fireplaces and wood stoves. Although wood seems like a healthy, natural fuel source, wood smoke is actually quite harmful. According to the MPCA, wood burned for home heating is responsible for more than half the state’s fine particle pollution.
Most of the trash Minnesotans throw away ends up in landfills. As waste breaks down underground, it pollutes the air by releasing methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. In addition, toxic chemicals in landfilled waste can leach out into soil and groundwater. Nearly all groundwater sources found near landfills contain harmful chemicals called perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These “forever chemicals” don’t break down in nature and are linked to many health problems, including cancer.
One of the biggest pollutants in Minnesota’s waterways is bacteria from human and animal waste. Human waste can enter the water through failing septic systems or spills from wastewater treatment plants. Animal waste comes mostly from livestock, with some coming from pets and wildlife. Stormwater runoff—water that flows over hard surfaces, such as city streets—can carry both kinds of waste into lakes and streams.
According to the TRI, the most polluted county in Minnesota is Hennepin County. Home to Minneapolis, the state’s largest city, this county experienced 80 of the state’s 510 toxic releases in 2021. Neighboring Ramsey and Anoka Counties, which are both heavily populated, had 38 and 28 toxic releases respectively. By contrast, three rural counties in the state’s northwestern corner—Kittson, Marshall, and Pennington—had only 1 each.
However, the counties with the most toxic pollution don’t always have the worst air quality. The ALA report gives Hennepin County a D grade for particle pollution but an A for ozone.
Pollution harms Minnesotans’ health in many ways. Air pollution can cause many lung ailments, including asthma and lung cancer, and also makes heart disease worse. Bacterial pollution in the water can spread disease. Mercury in the air and water can damage the nervous system, especially in young or unborn children. And many industrial pollutants found in water and soil cause cancer and other illnesses.
Pollution also damages the natural environment—especially the lakes and wetlands Minnesota is famous for. It sickens or kills plants and animals and degrades land. Soil and groundwater pollution can make crops grown in the state unsafe to eat and water unsafe to drink. In extreme cases, polluted land becomes completely unusable.
Perhaps the biggest threat to both humans and nature is climate change due to greenhouse gas pollution. As the planet warms, the weather becomes more severe. Dangerous heat waves, severe storms, droughts, and wildfires occur more frequently. These changes threaten the health of crops, trees, animals, and humans throughout the state.
Pollution doesn’t harm all Minnesotans equally. People with low incomes and people of color are at greater risk. One reason is that they’re more than twice as likely to live or work in polluted areas. Also, they’re less likely to have access to good health care to protect them from the harmful effects.
Protecting these at-risk communities is part of environmental justice (EJ). This is the principle that all Minnesotans, regardless of background, have the same right to a healthy environment. One way to promote EJ is to gather data about how pollution affects all groups in the state. Another is to give people a voice in decisions that affect their health and the health of their communities.
The state government and various nonprofits are working to reduce pollution in Minnesota. Their efforts include:
Individual Minnesotans can also do their part to fight pollution. For starters, you can help reduce landfill emissions by throwing away less trash. Choose products with less packaging. Minimize food waste at home by shopping carefully and eating leftovers. And recycle or compost as much of your trash as possible.
Wood smoke is a major air pollutant in Minnesota. If you heat your home with wood, choose an efficient stove that pollutes less. You can get a discount on upgrading your stove through Project Stove Swap. One of the most important ways to fight both air and water pollution is to reduce fossil fuel use. To do this, cut back on driving by walking, cycling, and using mass transit. Save energy at home by adjusting the thermostat, choosing efficient appliances, and unplugging unused devices. Finally, switch to community solar if you can. It’s easy to do and saves you money too.