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Eliminating MPCA Citizens' Board is a loss for democracy and citizen engagement

Jim Riddle

For the past two years, I have served on the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Citizens' Board. During the recent “special” session, leaders of the Minnesota House and Senate eliminated the Citizens’ Board, which has existed since the 1960s.

During my time on the board, I have witnessed its importance. We have done our homework, asked tough questions of staff and project proposers, provided scientific insights, listened to and conveyed input from citizens, made tough decisions, and consistently strengthened the legal basis for rulings made by the MPCA.

The Citizens’ Board came under fire from corporate agribusiness interests last fall, after we required an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for a proposed confined animal feeding operation (CAFO).

As shown in the public record, the owners of the facility did not have access to sufficient land to spread even half of the manure that would be generated. They did not have data on how their proposed massive water draw down would impact existing crop and livestock farms in the area. They did not have an agricultural mitigation plan in place for their proposed 12-mile pipeline to carry water from a well that had been permitted 7 years earlier for an unbuilt ethanol plant, to the CAFO. In addition, the owners were already sitting on two previously approved permits for huge dairy confinement facilities in Minnesota.

Required more information on impacts

Corporate ag interests, led by the Agri-Growth Council, have given the impression that the Citizens’ Board “stopped” construction of this CAFO. We did not stop anything – we simply required that more information be provided on the environmental and economic impacts of the proposed facility, in order to demonstrate that Minnesota’s laws would be followed and the health and safety of area residents and the environment would be protected.

The Citizens’ Board process has worked well since its inception, under Republican and Democratic administrations. We provided public access and transparency to the workings of the MPCA. We provided a broad range of expertise and perspectives, at almost no cost (per diem) to taxpayers.

All of our meetings have been open to the public, and all records of our proceedings are available online.

Protection and participation

The Citizens’ Board is part of Minnesota’s proud heritage of environmental protection and citizen participation, both of which bring business to Minnesota and make this state a great place to live, work, recreate and raise families.

Elimination of the Citizens’ Board is a loss for democracy and citizen engagement, making it easier for industrial agriculture, mines, pipelines and other extractive and polluting activities to be approved with little or no citizen participation.

Minnesota senators and representatives who voted for elimination of the Citizens’ Board should be ashamed. They have given a green light to corporate interests and a red light to citizen engagement, while further degrading our air, water, land and quality of life.

Jim Riddle is former chair of the USDA National Organic Standards Board and serves on the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Advisory Committee. Jim coordinates organic research grant programs for Ceres Trust, a charitable organization that distributes $2M/year for organic research in the Upper Midwest. He and his wife own and operate Blue Fruit Farm, a diversified fruit farm in southeast Minnesota.

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Comments (22)

Dairy

Who reviewed the MMP? The citizens board or were you relying on the MPCA review of it? If you were relying on the MPCA then I'm not sure I could justify them not requiring the EIS. If you were reviewing it yourself do you have the qualifications/experience to know if it is correct? I'll leave the water issue alone for now since the DNR would have the information on that. Also, what difference does it make if they are sitting on other permits? Why would that have any bearing on this in any way? It should not.

Who reviews?

Who reviews the board who reviews the board who reviews the board? Who reviews that? Jiminy Christmas! The people who want government to cost less actually increase the cost of government by scrutinizing the scrutiny, and then point at inefficiencies. If you want to know qualifications of the individual that wrote this piece, it's easy enough to get--it's not like he hid his name and there's a relevant basic biography at the bottom of the piece.

you missed it

You missed the point. I am trying to find out who actually reviewed the MMP. If it was the state and they approved the permit then it's on them for messing up and not stating a EIS is necessary but if it was the citizens board that reviewed it then I wouldn't put much stock in that since they don't have the experience/training to undertake such a task and make any kind of determination based on that. You're right, it is about efficiencies. It would be terribly inefficient to have the MPCA reviewing a MMP only to have the citizens board doing the same thing.

I didn't miss the point

You were questioning whether a group you didn't want to do a certain thing SHOULD do that certain thing by asking for qualifications that appear to be in place. It has nothing to do with efficiencies, but everything to do with responsibility to all of the citizens of the state.

responsibility

The responsibility to review a MMP is by the MPCA and no-one else. The citizens board should not be reviewing a MMP at all because they have no training or experience in doing that is my point. If it was showing a lack of acres to apply on I would have rejected it and not issued a permit. I would find it very hard to believe the MPCA would not recommend a EIS if the MMP is not compliant.

Bulletin: the Citizens' Board IS the MPCA

Or, I suppose I should say, "was," (along with the MPCA commissioner) for 50 years or so, before Minnesota statutes were amended this year.

"Subdivision 1. Creation. A pollution control agency, designated as the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, is hereby created. The agency shall consist of the commissioner and eight members appointed by the governor, by and with the advice and consent of the senate. One of such members shall be a person knowledgeable in the field of agriculture and one shall be representative of organized labor."

That's from the "old" (2014) version of Minnesota statutes, section 116.02, subdivision 1.

The new, post-Denny McNamara amendment version of the statutes will read:

"Subdivision 1. Creation. A pollution control agency, designated as the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, is hereby created."

Amazing, isn't it? Just delete two sentences, make a few other minor adjustments and, poof! No more annoying Citizens involved in the MPCA.

But when it comes to your proclamation that, "The responsibility to review a MMP is by the MPCA and no-one else," just wanted to set the record straight regarding what the statute-based, legal situation was at the time you're referring to.

more specific

I should be more specific also then. It should be someone trained to review the MMP in the feedlot division of the MPCA. I doubt very much anyone outside that division would have a clue what they are looking at. I've seen one for a feedlot of this size and it is a very daunting task to review it. Simply being knowledgeable in the field of agriculture or working at the PCA does not mean you would have a clue what you are looking at and be able to make any kind of determination.

Keep the MPCA board.

If it were not for this body, and Miles Lord, there would still be taconite tailings pouring into Lake Superior this very day. They provided an open forum for the public to participate in the great environmental issues facing Minnesota. Silence this body and the corporations and legislators will be free to pressure staff professionals in the agencies to do their bidding.

The bought and paid group

Of legislators who voted to destroy this board and other environmental protections simply prefer their reelection over protecting the environment for the future. A sellout to mining and corporate interests.

Sad story.....

There are, or were, some excellent people on the MPCA Citizen's Board. Mr. Riddle is one of them. But I do not think the Board as it has operated in recent years has enough independence to make much of a difference. The one time in recent years that it did NOT rubber stamp what the Commissioner wanted, but actually did its job, it got abolished.

The answer, of course, is not to get rid of the Board but to strengthen it.

As for this session of the Legislature....beneath contempt.

Market Failure

Advocates for a lot of schemes like CAFOs, sulfide mining on the Iron Range and pipelines through the Headwaters like to portray the opponents of these schemes as head-in-the-sand Luddites. Elimination of the Board, says Riddle, will make it "easier for industrial agriculture, mines, pipelines and other extractive and polluting activities to be approved with little or no citizen participation."

The reality, it seems to me, is that the advocates of these schemes fear their plans won't stand up to close scrutiny. The point is not that CAFOs should never be built, that copper should never be mined, or that oil should never be transported. People could argue those points, but that's not the point here. The point is that politically powerful owners and corporations want to do these things in the cheapest, sloppiest way possible, with no oversight. This makes good economic sense, if your economic perspective extends only to the next quarterly or year-end report. The corporations are acting rationally, from their economic point of view, when they behave this way. CAFOs and companies like Enbridge and Polymet have a long history of cutting corners to save money, and then trying to evade the penalties and costs of cleanup when things go wrong.

But clearly this kind of sensible economic behavior is not in the public interest, or even in the long-term interest of the companies involved. The decision to do it anyway and try to silence the opposition is what economists call "market failure." It is precisely why we can't have a completely free market (despite the fantasies of Ayn Rand-readers), and why regulatory agencies and citizen boards need to exist.

schemes?

Could you clarify why you think a CAFO is a scheme?

"CAFOs and companies like Enbridge and Polymet have a long history of cutting corners to save money, and then trying to evade the penalties and costs of cleanup when things go wrong." I'm not sure you can stand behind this statement at all. I'm sure a few CAFOs have cut corners (and likely got caught by a regulatory agency) but as a whole they are well regulated and have many rules to follow which do not allow cutting corners.

"The reality, it seems to me, is that the advocates of these schemes fear their plans won't stand up to close scrutiny." Isn't the EAW and NPDES permitting process by the MPCA close scrutiny? An owner of a feedlot with an NPDES permit is allowed exactly zero runoff from the facility and must follow strict manure application rules in order to be compliant or even get the permit to begin with according to the MPCA. The citizens board is not able to provide any closer scrutiny than the MPCA since they are not trained to review the submitted materials. This isn't to say the MPCA is infallible but given the rules they have in place I'd put my faith in them over the citizens board.

Again with the rules assumptions

As I commented in the previous story about this issue, I do not believe that the rules governing the MPCA reviews, or CAFO standards, or mining standards are either inherently the best standards nor effectively, equally, or efficiently applied.
The same interests being regulated have enormous incentives (money, time, money) to dig their heels in and litigate, sue, and influence the creation of the rules, changing of the rules, and enforcement of the rules.
Without being a super-insider it is hard for us on the outside to know exactly what rules are good, which are bad, which are bent, and which are unenforced/unenforceable.
But that is the thing, the Citizen's Board brought the outside perspective, they were a flashlight into the insides of these rules and regulation activities.
Who will shine the light now?

rules

Here you go. You don't need to be an insider at all to know what they are since they are all publicly available. https://www.revisor.mn.gov/rules/?id=7020 An outside perspective might be a good thing for some things but not for everything.

Where's the stuff about this in the Rules?

"As shown in the public record, the owners of the facility did not have access to sufficient land to spread even half of the manure that would be generated."

manure

Again, I'd like to know who made that determination and how it was presented as a fact. I've seen a MMP for a feedlot of that size and it is no easy task to review so only a qualified and trained individual in the feedlot division of the MPCA would be able to make that determination. If the feedlot division of the MPCA did make that determination I'd find it funny they would not require an EIS. As far as not having enough land it is fairly common for feedlots and only requires a transfer of ownership form for the manure for smaller feedlots. Not sure if the NPDES permitted ones are required to have land application agreements in hand but the smaller ones do not need these and can just say the remaining manure will be transferred.

That manure thing again...

You say this:

"Isn't the EAW and NPDES permitting process by the MPCA close scrutiny? An owner of a feedlot with an NPDES permit is allowed exactly zero runoff from the facility and must follow strict manure application rules in order to be compliant or even get the permit to begin with according to the MPCA."

The author, the guy that was there, "in the room," says this:

"As shown in the public record, the owners of the facility did not have access to sufficient land to spread even half of the manure that would be generated."

And so you think it was a good idea to get rid of the Citizens' Board because of that differing viewpoint? Is that what you're saying? Are you "on the record" as saying you agree with the Citizens' Board being done away with, or what?

I mean, I understand that you are 1,000% behind large scale feedlot operations, but can't say I'm clear on where you stand on the issue this article is about which is the MPCA Citizens' Board being abolished. Are you for that or not?

Schemes

I think Bill Willy has a point. If everyone diligently obeyed well-designed rules, we'd have no need for ANY regulation.

But in reality, we have environmental problems in the three areas I mentioned (CAFOs, sulphide mining, oil pipelines) precisely because operators regularly fail to obey all the rules on the books, and then seek to cover-up or evade responsibility for their failures. And let's not ignore the influence of economic power (whether from "family" or corporate sources) in rigging the rules for their benefit, to the detriment of the environment and less powerful neighbors.

So yeah, we need citizens to be looking at this stuff.

yes

I do think at this point it was a good idea to get rid of it since it had too much power and too little ability to come to a well thought out conclusion on things on their own such as whether a MMP is acceptable or not (still not clear who actually make that determination though). The citizens board needed to be dismantled at this point but should probably be put back in place in the future. Also to address the poster who replied to you, like I have said previously please point out all the CAFO violations on the MPCA quarterly release. I think you will find there is not near the issue you think there is.

CAFOs

Whether CAFOs are a good idea at all is a point we can debate elsewhere. I'll only say, MY turkeys spent the winter running around in the northern Minnesota snow and are perfectly healthy.

Publish a White Paper

Riddle's comments are full of holes and misinformation, as it should to preserve his legacy. How about a White Paper with verified facts so the public can form opinions without legacy bias.

agree

I would agree with this. Several holes and misinformation was evident.