Meet the Clean Air Minnesota co-chairs

headshot of tony kwilas and jon hunter, clean air minnesota co-chairs

About 75% of air pollution in Minnesota comes from small, widespread sources of emissions, like vehicles, that do not have as many regulations as power plants and factories. 

Clean Air Minnesota (CAM), a coalition of air quality leaders convened by Environmental Initiative, has been working to reduce these more widespread sources of emissions from mobile sources, small businesses, and wood smoke.  

The partnership has accomplished a lot in the almost two decades since it began, including reducing 370 tons of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) and 190 tons of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in just the last couple of years.  

But who are the people behind these efforts? There are 17 air quality leaders who serve in an advisory capacity to the partnership, helping to determine priorities and projects. Environmental Initiative recently sat down with the CAM co-chairs to discuss their interest in air quality work and what they are most proud of CAM accomplishing.  

Tony Kwilas is the environmental policy director for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. 

Jon Hunter is the senior director of the clean air program at the American Lung Association in Minnesota.  

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.  

Tell me a little bit about you, your career, and the work you do. 

Tony: I am the Director of Environmental Policy at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, and this will be my 27th year here at the Chamber of Commerce. I represent them up at the Minnesota State Capitol on all environmental issues, whether it be agriculture or natural resources, including forestry, mining, air quality, water quality, and hazardous waste. It’s something I enjoy doing. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been doing it for the last 27 years. 

Jon: I have worked For the American Lung Association for 12 years, as part of the Clean Air team. I have an undergraduate degree with a [Bachelor of Arts] in physics from Hamline University in St. Paul, and I have been working in the environmental world since graduating from college.  

At the American Lung Association, we have a variety of projects geared toward reducing air pollution. The vast majority of them are focused on transportation-related emissions and trying to reduce tailpipe emissions. We’ve been doing that work for more than 20 years. We started with transportation because tailpipes are one of the largest sources of traditional air pollutants in the upper Midwest.  

How did you become interested in working on air quality issues? 

Tony: It has become an interest of mine as I work with regulatory agencies and legislators on environmental issues at the state Capitol. Issues in the interaction between state and federal government is what started me down this road. And now it’s working with state, local, and Tribal governments to see if we can work together to implement creative solutions on a voluntary basis. My interest now has expanded outside of the state Capitol. I’m involved with numerous boards and commissions, including Clean Air Minnesota.   

Jon: I’ve always been interested in environmental work. I originally thought I was going to go into academic research, but then I got involved with the nonprofit world while I was in college, and I realized that I’d rather be out in the world trying to make things happen than inside a laboratory. I’ve been fortunate enough to work for different nonprofits on a variety of environmental topics throughout my career.  

One of our strategic initiatives at the American Lung Association is to protect the air we breathe. It was always a natural step for us to help with this because of all the other respiratory work going on inside the organization.  

You’ve both been involved in Clean Air Minnesota’s work for some time. What is the thing you are most proud of the partnership accomplishing? 

Tony: One of the first things I got involved in was Project Green Fleet, which dealt with retrofitting school buses. I really like that project because it involves children and trying to get funding together at the state and federal level. It helped get the pollution reduction equivalent to a significant number of cars off the road and improve the health of children who ride these school buses. That is one of my favorites that I’ve worked on over the years. But there’s also a lot of other great work being done with [Clean Air Minnesota] to help dry cleaners stop using the chemical [perchloroethylene] PERC in their cleaning process. Project Clean Air Repair is also a good one. We’ve gone through and worked with folks to try and retrofit cars. It’s a big help to folks who might not be able to afford it. We help them fix their car, so the air emissions are better, and it improves air quality in the state.  

Jon: It’s these examinations known as the clean air dialogues, where we spend deliberate time really looking at what the current sources of air pollution are and what kind of projects would address these pollutants. These conversations have shaped current working groups and activities for Clean Air Minnesota. It’s a very interesting process of being deliberate about where we need to go, and what some of the best pathways to get there might be.  

Why is something unique about the work Clean Air Minnesota does? What does it bring to the table? 

Tony: One of the great things is that it takes small businesses, large businesses, regulatory agencies, cities, counties, local governments, Tribal nations, and puts all the stakeholders in a room to see if there is an opportunity for us to build some relationships and move forward to improve air quality. You don’t see a lot of those opportunities anymore, and that’s why I think Environmental Initiative and Clean Air Minnesota are unique in that they bring stakeholders together to obtain funding and move forward with measurable outcomes. It’s a great success story and something I am proud to be a part of. 

An opportunity that Clean Air Minnesota provides is to get folks together that have an interest in air quality issues throughout the state and put them together to start discussions.  

Jon: Clean Air Minnesota brings a nice wide variety of different voices to the same table to try to talk about these issues. They get representation from a lot of different sectors and different viewpoints, and they all work together to reduce emissions.  

What opportunities do you see, or what are you most looking forward to the Clean Air Minnesota partners doing together over the next year? 

Tony: We have expanded recently out of the [Twin Cities] metropolitan area with [Project Stove Swap] and other programs in CAM so they have more of a statewide focus. As conversations around air quality and sources such as small businesses, mobile vehicles, wood smoke expand, I look forward to working on these issues not just in the metropolitan area, but across the state.  

Jon: I think a lot of us are trying to figure out how to make our work more place-based, more focused around which communities see the benefits of our work and are involved in the process. CAM has been working to try to figure that out for several years. And I just think there’s growing momentum and support from outside forces that will aid in that process.  

Environmental Initiative: What are some of the forces aiding in this process?  

Jon: A big one is the Justice40 Initiative from the federal government. It was created by an executive order under President Joe Biden and aims to have 40% of federal government investments in climate and energy benefit disadvantaged communities. The initiative requires us to look at grant programs and think about how to make sure those funding dollars are going to benefit communities most in need. I think we’ll see this play out with diesel programs, and with electric vehicle charging infrastructure. There are different environmental justice programs coming from different federal agencies and a wide variety of different initiatives that all will be feeding into that collective 40% goal.  

Air quality standards for fine particles and ground-level ozone are likely going to become more stringent in the next couple of years. What is one thing businesses or communities can do to help prepare?  

Tony: When folks see a smokestack, they think that is the problem. It‘s visual, you can see it emitting. But air emissions for point sources, like factories and smokestacks, only make up 23% of the air emissions in Minnesota. The other 77% are attributed to smaller sources like motor vehicles and small engines. And so, for me it is figuring out what other, less visible areas of air emissions we can focus on. We are so focused on the smokestacks, which is only a quarter piece of the pie, that we sometimes forget about the other three pieces of the pie. I want folks to understand there are other areas that we can go through and change to help improve air quality in Minnesota. I think education is an important component as we move into the future on this issue.  

Jon: The American Lung Association is advocating for lower standards that are more protective of public health and that better reflect the science. There are a lot of things that businesses or communities can start doing to prepare for that. Businesses can take inventory of what their emissions are right now. There are probably more federal and state programs available than ever to help businesses become more efficient or reduce emissions. They can work with the University of Minnesota’s MNTAP program to look at what industrial processes might be improved to make things cleaner and more efficient. It’s a great time for a business to be out ahead of things. There are a lot of benefits to reducing emissions even without any federal requirement or tightening air standards. It’s just a good thing to do regardless right now.  

Communities as a whole can start to take a survey of what emissions are coming into their community, or from their community, and start to look for different ways and funding opportunities that would enable them to being addressing some of those larger sources.  

It’s important for community members and voices to be part of the conversation and make sure that new funding opportunities really benefit the people who need it most right now. 

To learn more about the work pursued by Clean Air Minnesota and ways to get involved, sign up for our quarterly newsletter, or connect with Bill Droessler.