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Environmental Quality Board faces possible elimination

A state board tasked with oversight of the environmental review permitting process and regulatory compliance faces elimination by a controversial bill under consideration by the House Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee.

Sponsored by Rep. Dan Fabian (R-Roseau), HF1291 would make more than a dozen changes to the permitting process now followed by the Department of Natural Resources and Pollution Control Agency.

It would also eliminate the 44-year-old  Environmental Quality Board, a 14-member group that consists of nine state agency heads – including the DNR and PCA – and five citizen members.

The committee heard testimony on the bill Tuesday morning, then recessed with more than a dozen testifiers yet to speak. It plans to reconvene at approximately 5 p.m. The bill’s companion, SF1087, is sponsored by Rep. Bill Ingebrigtsen (R-Alexandria) and awaits action by the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Legacy Finance Committee.

Fabian said making the permitting and environmental review processes more efficient has been a focus of his for several years and he continues to hear “a lot of frustration” about the length and cost of permitting and “how many hoops” applicants must jump through.

“This is another attempt on my part to try and speed things up and create some regulatory certainty,” Fabian said. “We’re just trying to continue the march down that path.”

Fabian, the committee chair, said eliminating the EQB  would be another way to “streamline” the process, that no standards would be being changed and that the agencies could still meet.

“I think that all these things the EQB does can be taken up by other agencies,” he said.

But Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson, who has also been EQB chair for the past six years, disputed that suggestion. He told the committee that bringing together state agencies under the EQB allows them to better work together and is “an unequalled opportunity” for citizens to be part of the process.

“I’ve always supported the theory if it ain’t, broke don’t fix it,” Frederickson said. “And I don’t believe the Environmental Quality Board is broken at all.”

He said eliminating the board would not create the kind of efficiencies bill supporters are looking for, and that he’s “proud and impressed” by the work the EQB has done.

WATCH Full video from the committee's morning hearing 

Rep. Clark Johnson (DFL-North Mankato) said the EQB’s efforts four years ago to address concerns surrounding silica sand mining in the state were an example of how effective the board could be. By drawing the best minds in state government from different agencies together, he said potential issues were effectively addressed.

“If we’re going to get rid of an agency that has worked well for Minnesota, we should have a cause for getting rid of that,” Johnson said.

Rep. Paul Torkelson (R-Hanska) said the question should be whether the board helps improve the process and reach better conclusions on a given issue and that, when future problems arise, the governor could appoint a task force to address them.


DIY EIS drafts

Objections were also raised to a provision that would allow project proposers to prepare and submit their own draft Environmental Impact Statements. These comprehensive documents are used to study the consequences of proposed activities on the environment.

Fabian said allowing a potential permittee to create the EIS rather than the permitting agency would speed up the process.

However, Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-Mpls) said this could create a conflict of interest and was like “the fox guarding the henhouse.” Fabian disagreed, telling the committee those working on the permit would “know the guardrails” and agencies would still review the draft EIS and have the authority to accept or reject it.

A few of the other proposed changes in HF1291 include:

  • requirements that the DNR provide cost estimates for each task involved, and a schedule, when applicants pay for expedited permitting, and a written agreement that includes recourse for applicants if the schedule is not met;
  • a prohibition on the DNR from enforcing unadopted rules;
  • a requirement that, when public notice of a draft permit is required, the PCA and DNR publish public notice within 150 days of receiving a completed application; and
  • a provision that wetland replacement sites identified in an Environmental Impact Statement be deemed approved on final EIS approval.

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