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Mike Robertson: Critical Collaborator Award Recipient

April 4th, 2017

The Critical Collaborator award recognizes an individual over the age of 50 who has utilized partnership and collaboration to achieve positive and lasting environmental outcomes.

Mike Robertson has been part of nearly every major environmental policy decision in Minnesota for the last 30 years. Though he’s retired now from his time as an Environmental Lobbyist and Attorney for various public and private sector clients, he’s one of the founding members and minds behind Clean Air Minnesota and the Clean Water Legacy Act. You can read more about his professional career on our recipients page

Join us in honoring Mike at the 25th Anniversary Environmental Initiative Awards on May 25, 2017. Purchase your seats or tables here » 

We have two Critical Collaborator recipients this year, and I got to sit down with them both and talk about their career, passions, and get their advice for those currently working on environmental issues.

SITTING DOWN WITH MIKE ROBERTSON

What excites you about the environmental community, sector, or movement in Minnesota?

I think it’s the tradition that we started to build through Environmental Initiative of collaboration. It’s really the vehicle to make things happen, and that is what excited me about working with Environmental Initiative and being a leader in that group.

There are always going to be specific issues where there is conflict on the environment—an example would be the future of mining in Minnesota. For the most part, though, I think collaboration is possible and successful if the various groups are working together and the work that we’ve done at Environmental Initiative has given me confidence that, going forward, this tradition that we’ve built can work for the future.

You’re one of the founding members of Clean Air Minnesota—as well as one of the minds that shaped the effort. What made you go to bat for this group?

Clean Air Minnesota was really important because in the evaluation of the state’s air quality problems, the data showed that 75% of air pollution was coming from non-point sources. In other words, all the industries had permits for their point-source air issues, and followed those for the most part, and still we were concerned about meeting the ozone standard and other air quality standards.

Part of the federal law is that if the state is not in compliance, then it’s the point source permit holders (the industries) who may be penalized for that. Because pollution was coming from smaller non-smoke stack pollution, there’s no way that Minnesota could maintain or improve air quality without having a collaborative process. Local governments, business, and the environmental community needed to try to take some voluntary actions to maintain the status of our air quality.

Partnership and consensus isn’t always easy. What was your most difficult collaborative endeavor (or problem)?

One was very successful, and the other was much less so.

The most successful was the Clean Water Legacy Project where we formed a group which worked on creating a framework for addressing the state’s water quality issues, and then finding a source of funding. It took several years to figure this out, with all these interests, and they are still working together on it. It was a very successful process, and the legislature agreed with the legislation and eventually found a method to fund and provide resources to the state agencies and local governments. It’s an effort that will go on for many, many years and I think it’s a tremendous success.

The one that was more difficult was the Environmental Initiative stakeholder process on chemical regulation. The federal government, under the Toxic Substances Control Act, regulates hazardous substances. That law needed work for a long time, and Congress was not able to do it, and there were efforts for the state regulation of chemicals—so we brought the stakeholders together.

It was a very interesting process, but there was not significant consensus that came out of it. One thing that did occur after the fact was that Congress eventually did pass amendments to the Toxic Substance Control Act which are now being implemented and hopefully the situation will improve.

As you look at these issues over time, one factor of success is getting the timing right. At the time in which we were working on the chemical issue, the timing wasn’t exactly right. With air and water quality, everybody moved together.

What advice would you give those currently working in the environmental sector?

My advice would be that environmental professionals and volunteers need to get to know each other. Everybody kind of works in a different environment, representing different interests. One of the things that I’ve discovered over the years is that people need to get together and get to know each other and get to know the issues that are of concern to them. Even though you may not be working at the top level of policymaking, even if you’re an engineer working on a permit, or you’re a volunteer working in your community—all the folks affecting the issue need to get together and talk. It doesn’t need to be done regarding a specific issue, and just the professional relationships that can develop and can be helpful later when folks are in a situation of conflict.

Your favorite Environmental Initiative memory… (serious, funny, impactful… your choice!)

The memory that I have is being a member of Environmental Initiative’s board of directors back in 2003. We brought this question of creating a collaborative process on water quality (The Clean Water Legacy Project) to the board, and there was a lot of concern about that at the time. Environmental Initiative had been focusing on a lot on dialogue and bringing people together to talk about the issues, and now we were talking about something very different, which was actually trying to find solutions in an elaborate process. It hadn’t been tried before at the organization.

I remember the board meeting where that decision was made. The board eventually came around and made the decision that, ‘Yes, we need to go forward.’ I think that changed Environmental Initiative from that day forward. We worked on The Clean Water Legacy Project for three or four years, it was successful, and it developed the organization’s experience in how to collaborate. It was the genesis of the collaborative effort in Minnesota, and it worked. The air quality process (Clean Air Minnesota) went from there, the solid waste collaboration, the chemical dialogue—so there are huge successes that came out of that first collaborative endeavor in 2003.


A note from Environmental Initiative
In honor of our 25th Anniversary, we’re taking the time to acknowledge those who’ve been essential and influential in Minnesota’s environmental community. In addition to celebrating outstanding projects, we’re also recognizing the leaders that have helped us get to this point, and those that will continue to improve our community.

Damian Goebel

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Communications Director
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