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Persell talks state environment issues with BSU class

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BEMIDJI — Although he’s been a legislator in St. Paul since 2008, Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, got to talk about a deeper passion of his on Tuesday: the environment.

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He spoke about environmental issues facing regions across Minnesota and ones facing Bemidji specifically during a Q and A session with two sections of a “People in the Environment” class at his alma mater, Bemidji State University.

Persell is majority whip in the Minnesota House of

Representatives, but what he called his “day job” is working as an environmental policy analyst for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, working extensively with the St. Regis Paper Company Superfund cleanup site in Cass Lake.

Persell brought up the superfund site when he fielded a question on the polluted space on Lake Bemidji’s south shore, where wood fragments were dumped into the lake by local industry.

He said he’s talking with city officials on how best to solve the problem.

“The city and I are communicating,” he said.

He said at some point there would likely be light shed on whether there’s a connection between the chips and the companies that had plant operations on the south shore.

“I think everybody’s going to look back a little bit to see if there was any connection -- and I don’t know there is -- to the previous … wood processing plants,” he said. “Georgia-Pacific was there, NuPly before them.”

No matter who was responsible for polluting the site, Persell said, it would likely fall to the government to fund the the south shore cleanup.

“I don’t think there’s any way around that,” he said. “Whatever happens, I think we taxpayers are going to be on the hook for it.”

Persell also weighed in on the conflict between alternative energy sources and fossil fuels.

He explained how lobbyists for the local utilities companies would could come visit him every year, concerned about the rise of alternative energy sources hampering their business. Persell would keep prophesying the same thing to them in response, which he said eventually came true.

“I thought it about more and I said, ‘You know, when we’re all driving electric cars, your electric utilities are going to be smiling all the way to the bank,’ and they didn’t believe that,” he recalled. “I just kept saying that year after year -- I’m in my fifth year now. This last year, they believed me. They knew. It’s happened.”

Industries feeling threatened by new technology is nothing new, Persell said.

“110, 120 years ago, the buggy whip manufacturers were crying to every politician they could that Henry Ford was going put them out of business,” he said.

When asked about the proposed pipeline from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota through northern Minnesota, Persell initially had an abrupt response.

“Don’t like it,” he said.

However, he added a balance must be struck between the needs of the environment and other needs, like national security. Pipelines and oil from places like North Dakota help to eliminate America’s dependence on foreign oil, he said.

“I’ll be brutally honest, I am supportive of getting petroleum out of North America as opposed to the Middle East,” he said. “I’m not a big fan of folks who want to come over and blow up my wife and kids getting money from me.”

Persell said in some cases the best way to fight for the environment isn’t necessarily direct confrontation, but rather, providing alternatives to harmful practices.

“Forty years ago, I was an in-your-face environmentalist -- and I still am when I need to be,” he said. “But .. sometimes you find out that picking a fight over an issue doesn’t get you very far. If you don’t believe I’m right, look at the United States Congress.”

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