The year in dysfunctional state government

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Editor’s note: As we count down the final days of 2007, we look back at some of the most interesting or important stories of the past year. Here’s the third in this ongoing series.

The last year has been marked by three separate but significant failures of state government: the collapse of the 35W bridge, the revelation of high rates of mesothelioma in taconite miners, and the discovery of more perfluorochemicals in our drinking water. In each instance, there is a state apparatus in place to prevent and protect the tax-paying citizenry from such incidents. In each instance, the state failed, and those responsible received the steadfast support of Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

The most dramatic was, of course, the collapse of the 35W bridge on Aug. 1. The calamity brought down the curtains that concealed a MnDOT that’s ineffective, over budget, and functionally broken. For years the decaying bridge was ignored as repairs were shelved in favor of inaction, a far less expensive and less bothersome option for MnDOT. That failure came at the expense of 13 lives. MnDOT commissioner Carole Molnau, now known for her light post-collapse work schedule, will likely be ousted by the state legislature in 2008, but has continued to recieve the strong backing of Gov. Pawlenty.

On Aug. 22, three weeks after the 35W bridge collapse and amid calls for Molnau’s resignation, Diane Mandernach quietly resigned as commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health, which brings us to the state’s second significant failure. Results of a study on mesothelioma in taconite miners obtained in March 2006 by the Department of Health revealed that 35 Iron Range miners died of the asbestos-related cancer between 1997 and 2005, twice as many as in the previous nine years. Mandernach suppressed the results of that study for more than a year, as hardworking men and women continued to subject themselves to the carcinogenic conditions on a daily basis. It has since been determined that 58 miners have died since 2003 due to mesothelioma.Mesothelioma

Most appalling was that Mandernach tipped off Cleveland-Cliffs Mining Company one week before finally releasing the information to the public.

In the months before Mandernach’s resignation, Gov. Pawlenty acknowledged that what Mandernach did was wrong but stated that her actions did not rise “to the level of termination.”

The actions of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s (MPCA) commissioner, former 3M environmental manager Cheryl Corrigan, didn’t rise to Pawlenty’s standard of termination either — until she became a political liability. Corrigan was responsible for the suppression of research into the 3M chemicals that this year were found in Twin Cities drinking water. Unlike Molnau and Mandernach, Corrigan didn’t get to stick around to see the fruits of her labor as she was unceremoniously dismissed four months before Pawlenty’s reelection.

The MPCA’s lead scientist on new environmental threats, Dr. Fardin Oliaei, discovered high levels of PFBA in the Washington County Landfill in 2005 and urged the Department of Health to test the drinking water out of fear the chemical was seeping underground. In January 2007, perfluorobutanoic acid (PFBA), manufactured by 3M for film processing until 1999, was discovered in the water supplies of six east metro suburbs, confirming Oliaei’s suspicions. Unfortunately for Oliaei, she was forced out of the MPCA in early 2006, suggesting that discovery of a problem makes one more culpable than those who ignore it. In February, the agency paid Oliaei $325,000 to drop a federal whistleblower lawsuit.

The conditions that have been created by Pawlenty’s business-first approach have damaged the credibility and effectiveness of state government and the agencies that Minnesotans rely on to act in their best interests. The obligation of the state is to its citizens, not to dutifully avoid controversy and protect industry. There is a mountain of evidence that several agencies throughout this administration have failed the people of Minnesota. It is no wonder why the Governor has set such stringent standards for termination.

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