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Convening & Collaborating in Grand Rapids

September 5th, 2017

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: An environmentalist, a diesel vendor, and a public health worker are sitting around a table in Grand Rapids…

Despite being tantalizing close to another “Sven and Ole” knee-slapper, these were just a few of the participants that gathered on Tuesday, August 15 at our most recent event: the Clean Air Collaborative.

As many of you may know, our Clean Air program has been experiencing exponential growth in partners and projects that reduce air pollution emissions and invest in Minnesota’s economy. As bigger and better opportunities lie ahead, this was the perfect time to reconnect with partners and stakeholders in Greater Minnesota. As our last Northern Minnesota convening event was a Clean Air Minnesota meeting in Duluth in June of 2014, we were overdue for a visit!

Our goal was to reintroduce ourselves to the region and, most importantly, learn about Northern Minnesota’s priorities from Northern Minnesotans. With Blandin Foundation generously hosting and resources provided by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Flint Hills Resources, the event was a huge success. Representatives from private, public, tribal government and non-profit sectors were all in attendance having meaningful conversation.

Event Snapshot: Outcomes & Attendees

The event began with presentations of Clean Air Minnesota programs, projects and partners, but the real pay dirt came from the facilitated breakouts sessions that followed. Participants explored:

  • Cost-effective ways to use Volkswagen settlement dollars to better Minnesota’s environment, economy and public health
  • A possible logging truck project through Project Green Fleet’s clean diesel work
  • Actions to assist low-income residents in Northern Minnesota and on tribal lands access Project Stove Swap benefits
  • How to engage other professional associations and community organizations in air quality, energy, and other environmental work
  • Partnership opportunities that advance voluntary emission reductions and investment in Northern Minnesota

When the Itasca County Public Health Department is having lively discussions with the Hearth, Patio, and Barbecue Association, you know you’re doing something right. Other organizations, agencies, businesses, and governments in attendance included:

  • American Lung Association
  • CAT Ziegler, Inc.
  • Fireplace Lifestyles, Inc.
  • Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa
  • Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board
  • Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe
  • Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
  • Minnesota Logger Education Program
  • Minnesota Pollution Control Agency
  • Minnesota Power, an ALLETE Company
  • Northern Minnesota Builders Association
  • Nuss Trucking and Equipment
  • Red Lake Band of Chippewa
  • St. Louis County
  • And many more

As always, the hours fly by with such fantastic people and before we knew it, we were on our way. Though our time was short, it was extremely productive and just the beginning of our push to continue our work for the benefit of Minnesota’s environment and its people. If you’re interested in what we talked about, presentations or the agenda, all materials are posted on our website »

As the great Herb Brooks once said, “Great moments are born from great opportunities.” Here at Environmental Initiative, we look forward to making many great moments to come.

Bjorn Olson


Senior Environmental Project Associate

Putting a CAAP on Air Pollution (Now in St. Paul)

March 7th, 2017

The Clean Air Assistance Project (CAAP) has officially completed its first emissions reduction project!

As part of Clean Air Minnesota’s efforts to improve the state’s air quality, Environmental Initiative is working with our partners and local businesses to make proactive and voluntary improvements that benefit the environment, human health, and help our local economy transition toward a clean and efficient future. CAAP is part of the Area Source Team within Clean Air Minnesota that helps smaller, more localized sources of pollution reduce their emissions. Our first project was with Raymond Auto Body Shop in St. Paul.

Smog, smells, and solvents

Raymond Auto Body has been painting cars in St. Paul for over 60 years. Historically, paints used in auto body shops are usually made from solvents. What are solvents? They usually come with names like “n-butyl acetate,” “xylene,” or “2-methoxy-1-methylethyl acetate.” Rolls right off the tongue, right? Basically, it’s the stuff that makes that spray paint smell.

Solvents evaporate faster than water, shortening the drying time needed to finish painting cars. Unfortunately, they’re also harmful to the environment and human health. These solvents are also called VOCs: Volatile Organic Compounds. When these VOCs are released into the air, they mix with other pollutants and cause ground-level ozone, also known as smog. Smog is bad. How bad? Breathing in smog has been described as the equivalent of “sunburn on your lungs.” So basically, solvent VOCs mix with other compounds in the air to make smog, which isn’t great.

But good news! The project with Raymond Auto Body switched their solvent-based paint to a water-based paint. This is a relatively new technology, but one that many states in violation of federal air quality standards are required to make. It does take a little more effort to make sure the paint booth has enough clean and dry air moving fast enough to make that water evaporate quickly (especially on a hot and humid summer day). This means that switching to waterborne paint usually requires upgrading the air blowers in the booth.

Raymond Auto Body—Exciting for 3 Reasons

This particular project is a real humdinger.

For starters, it’s exciting to get the first CAAP project under the belt! We’ve worked to promote and utilize other programs before (like the Minneapolis Green Business Cost Share Program and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s (MPCA) Small Business Environmental Assistance Program), but this was the first one Environmental Initiative took from start to finish using our own funding.

Second, it’s a big project! What we’ve historically seen from similar conversion projects are VOC reductions ranging from 45 – 65%! We’ll know more when the numbers come in for 2017, but for a shop like Raymond, we’re conservatively looking at tons of emissions reductions.

Third, this project is emblematic of what we’re trying to do with our air work. According to the MPCA’s Life and Breath Report, negative health impacts of air pollution fall disproportionately on lower-income residents and people of color, as well as the elderly, children, and those predisposed to respiratory illness. Raymond Auto Body is right off Lexington and W. Pierce Butler Route, a location the Metropolitan Council identified as an area of concentrated poverty. It’s also located in a corridor that has historically been affected by heavy industrial use. In short, these emission are being eliminated where Minnesotans feel the effects of air pollution more acutely.

Get Involved

While we’re celebrating this project and CAAP’s successful rollout, the last thing we want to do is rest on our heels. In fact, we’re already chasing down our next auto body project in St. Paul and looking for additional opportunities in the Metro. Know of any? Give us a call or e-mail and see if we can bring a similar success to your neck of the woods.

The Clean Air Assistance Program is made possible through generous contributions and support from our partners, 3M and Western Refining.

Bjorn Olson


Senior Environmental Project Associate

Introducing the Clean Air Assistance Project

October 5th, 2016

Surprise! We launched a new project! Well, sort of…

Previously known as our Area Source Emission Reduction project, the Clean Air Assistance Project is an effort to connect businesses with grants and technical resources to voluntarily reduce air pollution.

Current resources are available through the City of Minneapolis, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), the University of Minnesota Technical Assistance Program (MnTAP), and Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MnOSHA). Environmental Initiative has provided “customer service” to businesses interested in leveraging these resources to voluntarily reduce their emissions. Our services ranged from business engagement and recruitment, grant application assistance, and overall project coordination between funders, vendors, and grantees. We’re still doing this work, but we felt that is was time for us to put our money where our mouth is.

With that, we are excited to announce that Environmental Initiative has additional funding to complement existing programs. Funds are available to businesses of all sizes, locations, and across industry sectors. You name it—auto shops in Alexandria, degreasers in Duluth, printers in Pipestone, and everything in between—they’re all eligible to participate.

Exciting, right? We thought so, too. That’s why we renamed this project to reflect the expansion. We’re hoping to raise additional funds to increases our impact, expand outreach to additional geographical areas and businesses, and further reduce air pollution across the state.

Environmental Initiative is leading the Clean Air Assistance Project, which operates under the umbrella of Clean Air Minnesota, a coalition of diverse partners working toward a common goal of 10% statewide emission reductions.

Through existing grant programs and Environmental Initiative outreach, the combined efforts of Clean Air Minnesota partners have eliminated more than 25 tons of the ozone-forming emissions known as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs).

At the same time, these programs invested over $800,000 in businesses that embraced cutting-edge technologies as well as materials that position them on the forefront of innovative sustainability. Take a minute to watch this video from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency about businesses who’ve upgraded equipment or processes for cleaner air:

We’re proud to offer resources that promote sustainable and tangible solutions to our environmental, economic, and public health challenges.

Email me or call 612-334-3388 ext. 8113 to find out more about the financial resources available now and how to get started reducing emissions at your business.

Bjorn Olson


Senior Environmental Project Associate

Three Minnesota Construction Companies Enroll in Project Green Fleet

September 13th, 2016

What do Anoka, Albertville, and Sleepy Eye all have in common? They’ll all be breathing easier for years to come, thanks to three construction companies and their commitment to clean air.

Erin Contracting, Mathiowetz Construction, and Northdale Construction all partnered with Project Green Fleet in order to ensure residents in their communities benefit from clean air. These three companies are now operating either upgraded or replaced diesel machines, meaning each is more fuel efficient and releasing less pollutants into the air.Frontloader

Project Green Fleet is a voluntary statewide effort run by Environmental Initiative to reduce diesel pollution. We raise money to help businesses, like construction companies, upgrade engines and equipment to reduce air emissions. Participating fleets also help share in the cost of each project.

Mathiowetz Construction is operating a newer, cleaner bulldozer as a result of the partnership. Replacing the engine in this one piece of equipment is the equivalent of removing 2,200 cars from the road every year. Similar results exist with Erin Contracting and Northdale Construction, both of which upgraded their diesel loaders. Repowering both loaders is the equivalent of removing nearly 800 cars each from the road annually.

“We’ve worked hard to establish company protocols to minimize impacts on the environment,” said Brian Mathiowetz, CEO of Mathiowetz Construction. “Participating in Project Green Fleet helps us save money, upgrade equipment earlier than we otherwise would, and do our part to keep Minnesota’s air clean. We’re proud to be a part of this effort.”


Diesel engines are very important to our economy—they move our goods and provide valuable services. However, many diesel engines can have striking health costs associated with air pollution. Vulnerable populations, like children, the elderly, and those with heart and lung conditions are especially susceptible to health hazards. Air pollution is associated with asthma and a number of cardiovascular problems.

Upgrading diesel fleets helps reduce these effects. Combined with the high costs of replacing them, the longevity of diesel engines mean that many older and less efficient models are still in operation today. Upgrades still require a significant investment by the fleet, but Project Green Fleet helps make it easier for companies to decrease their impact.

Minnesota’s air quality is generally good, but we can always be doing more. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is always releasing more stringent emission requirements as we learn more about the health effects of poor air quality.

In partnership with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Environmental Initiative has retrofitted 3,200 buses and 1,400 heavy-duty diesel engines in Minnesota through Project Green Fleet. To learn more about being part of Project Green Fleet or how it works, visit our information page. »

We’re always excited to partner with local companies to improve air quality across the state. Their commitment to clean air means we all have a little more room to breathe.

Bjorn Olson


Senior Environmental Project Associate

Project Green Fleet Removes 17,000 Cars from the Road

June 7th, 2016

A little less than two years ago, Environmental Initiative announced completing all eligible school bus retrofits in Minnesota; an effort that in partnership with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency reduced emissions equivalent to removing 750,000 cars from the road each year. At that time, we daringly declared our intention to match school bus emission reductions by retrofitting 100 heavy-duty, off-road pieces of diesel equipment. As we approach the 2-year anniversary of this new phase of Project Green Fleet, I thought it would be an appropriate time to report and reflect on our efforts.

For those unfamiliar, retrofitting a school bus means installing a DOC and/or a FOH. Say, what? DOC stands for Diesel Oxidation Catalyst. Essentially, it’s like the catalytic converter on your car, but bigger. FOH stands for Fuel Operated Heater. When buses need to warm up in winter or during school trips, they idle the engine to provide heat. An FOH is a small heater that heats the engine and the bus while reducing fuel use by 90%. As retrofits go, DOCs and FOHs are easy: quick to install, cheap, and compatible with most buses. Plus, Environmental Initiative and our partners paid for 100% of the retrofit costs. Tough to turn down, amirite?

From Buses to Big (Really Big) Diesel Vehicles

Heavy-duty, off-road retrofits are a “horsepower” of a different color. Basically, there are three options: you can upgrade an engine, replace an engine, or replace the whole piece of equipment. These retrofits result in massive emission reductions, but they also cost much more. While Project Green Fleet offers a match incentive, fleets often invest tens of thousands of dollars of their own resources for a heavy-duty retrofit. These bigger jobs also require more “down-time” to install along with specialized and technical expertise, which can complicate work schedules.frontloader, construction vehicle

However, despite these challenges and an audacious goal before us, the response has been incredible. Since completing the school buses in 2014, Environmental Initiative has eliminated diesel emissions equivalent to removing 17,000 cars from the road each year through heavy-duty reduction projects. We’ve also got potential projects in the works that would amount to an additional 28,000 car-equivalent removal by the end of 2016. New projects range from Sleepy Eye to Duluth, with a heavy concentration of work slated to happen in the 7-county metro area. In fact, demand for diesel emission reduction projects has been so great we’ve already committed all of our available resources for 2016. (We’re currently busy raising more funds).

Our partners at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) have received similar response to funding for clean diesel projects through their Diesel Emissions Reduction Act (DERA) program. The MPCA program covers 40% of diesel upgrade costs and funding is expected to increase to $400,000 for next year. Learn more »

So, where do we go from here?

In the words of Big Tom Callahan, “…you’re either growing or you’re dying.” Three things will determine the future success of Project Green Fleet: fleet participation, increased awareness of air pollution and the need for emission reductions, and funding.

We’ve got a lot of work to do. Here are three ways you can help:

  • Know a company or fleet manager who may be interested in upgrading their older diesel equipment? Contact me for program information to pass along.
  • Raise awareness about air quality. We’re looking for guest bloggers, story ideas, social media sharing, and more to support a coordinated campaign to raise awareness about air quality in Minnesota. If you’re interested in communicating about air quality, contact Emily Franklin in our office to plug in.
  • Donate. Between June 8 and July 1, any contribution made to Environmental Initiative will be matched dollar for dollar. Donations from individuals like you help make work like Project Green Fleet, and our other collaborative projects, possible. Donate here »


Bjorn Olson


Senior Environmental Project Associate

Project Green Fleet Makes Waves

September 30th, 2015

For those who are unaware, one year ago we announced the completion of our mission to retrofit every eligible school bus in Minnesota thatProject Green Fleet Media Event it makes sense to retrofit with pollution reduction equipment. Through Project Green Fleet (our diesel emission reduction partnership with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency) we retrofitted over 3,200 buses and, combined with other engines, eliminated air emissions quivalent to removing 750,000 cars from the road every year. Naturally, we celebrated for a whole five minutes before announcing our next initiative to match those reductions pound for pound for a total emissions reduction equivalent of 1.5 million cars. Considering there are less than 6 million motor vehicles registered in the state, that’s no small fleet (rimshot).

In this second phase of Project Green Fleet, we’re setting our sights on bigger, older, and dirtier heavy-duty engines. These engines are at work across the construction sector, at airports and railyards, and at our ports. So, on a soggy Thursday morning with the help of our funders from Flint Hills Resources and our friends at the City of Saint Paul, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Saint Paul Port Authority, Upper River Services, and Caterpillar Ziegler, we announced the first retrofit in this new phase and our biggest to date. We also got a little media coverage, which was great:

The Becky Sue is a 38 year-old towboat operated by Upper River Services. Lee Nelson, Owner of Upper River Services, heard of Project Green Fleet and thought it was a good opportunity to give ol’ Becky Sue a new lease on life. She’ll get two new 600-horsepower engines that will ensure she hauls Minnesota’s goods and materials for years to come. Equally impressive is that she’ll be doing more with less (pollution, that is).

Upgrading the Becky Sue from her unregulated engines to EPA-certified Tier III equipment will eliminate over 20 tons of air emissions each year, the equivalent to removing 12,000 cars from the road.

If you drive to work, try this some time. Lets assume (heaven forbid) you work five days a week for all 52 weeks in the year. As you sit in traffic, count 46 cars in front or around you each day. Now imagine they disappear. Day after day after day. For a year. Every year. That’s the kind of impact this project has. And those are just two engines.

Make no mistake, achieving another 750,000 car-equivalent reduction is going to be a challenge. It’s also going to be another incredible milestone in Project Green Fleet and our ongoing mission to reduce emissions and exposure through voluntary collaborative efforts.

And the 5 minutes we take to celebrate before announcing our next initiative will be twice as sweet.

Bjorn Olson


Senior Environmental Project Associate

Area Source Emissions and VOCs: Smaller, Dispersed Sources of Pollution

June 12th, 2015

What can I say about area source emissions, or VOCs, that hasn’t been said already? Probably a lot, because DSC02882webmany people don’t know what the heck I’m talking about…

Long story short, area source emissions are smaller and more dispersed. They aren’t regulated like “point sources” (think smokestacks). VOCs (volatile organic compounds) are an example of area source emissions that contribute to ground-level ozone.

Why is that bad? Well, for one, breathing ozone has been described as “sunburn on the lungs.” If that isn’t enough, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is lowering ground-level ozone standards this fall. Minnesota is very close to violating these new standards, which, if we do, would mean a host of new restrictions required by our federal friends. Regardless of where the standards are set, there’s a benefit to reducing emissions proactively and voluntarily — cleaner air means healthier air — it’s really that simple.

So, where do area source emissions like VOCs come from?

VOCs are emitted from a variety of sectors including auto body shops, manufacturing, printing, and dry cleaners, among others. Basically, anything involving solvents, lubricants, or hydraulics, as examples. If you get a whiff of something that smells like spray paint, it’s probably a VOC.

So, what can we do about it?

Enter stage left: your friendly nonprofit, Environmental Initiative.


Bjorn Olson


Senior Environmental Project Associate

Introducing Bjorn Olson, Senior Environmental Project Associate

March 28th, 2014

Hi all. I’m Bjorn Olson, the new Senior Environmental Project Associate here at Environmental Initiative. I’ll be primarily working on the development of our various air quality efforts such as Project Green Fleet, Clean Air Minnesota, and other programs to reduce harmful air pollutants.

While my focus is on air, I was first exposed to an environmental ethic growing up on the Mississippi River. A river rat from the get-go, I explored the river in (and tumbling out of) a canoe, capitalizing on every opportunity to seek adventure, freedom, and dirt (principles which I still proudly adhere to). As I grew and ventured from rivers to Boundary Water lakes, my love of the physicality of the outdoors was complimented by the mental, emotional, and spiritual components we “environmentalists” value so dearly. Then college arrived and I immersed myself in Thoreau, Leopold, Abbey, Williams, and others who so eloquently articulated the intangible virtues of environmental experience and preservation. Subsequently, I found myself with a B.A. in English and unemployed; such are the rewards for romantic conservationists…

Unable to forsake my environmental roots, I pursued my M.S. in Natural Resource Science and Management at the good ol’ University of Minnesota. There, I studied the root of all environmental problems: humans. Specifically, I focused on the drivers and constraints to individual participation in conservation as well as assessing community capacity for natural resource management.

At Environmental Initiative, I look forward to using my skills and experiences to create collaborative and mutually beneficial relationships that protect and improve our environment. I’m pumped to be working with an organization that has such a prestigious history of leading environmental ingenuity and action. Most of all, I’m humbled to be a part of such a professional, talented, and dedicated team. As Abbey said, “The idea of wilderness needs no defense. It only needs more defenders.” Well, here I am.

Bjorn Olson


Senior Environmental Project Associate

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