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Gov. Dayton signs GOP permit-streamlining bill, disappointing environmentalists

Gov. Mark Dayton today made perhaps the most difficult decision of his first months in office.

In a decision that disappointed many of his strongest supporters, the governor signed a bill designed to streamline the process of businesses looking to expand or building existing and new operations.

But the bill also included many provisions that environmentalists considered “onerous’’ and a rollback on Minnesota’s place as a national environmental leader.

Environmentalists disappointed
While Dayton supporters were disappointed by his action, Republican legislative leaders were singing praises of the ability of the Republican majority and the DFL governor to “work together.’’

“The passage of this legislation shows we can work together to get the job done,’’ said House Speaker Kurt Zellers.

That statement seemed ironic on a day that Republican legislative leaders put up — and then voted down — a sham amendment that they said shows there’s no support for the governor to raise taxes in balancing the budget. (See related story.)

Surely, the Republican game-playing with his budget bill had to make Dayton’s decision to sign the “streamlining’’ bill all the more difficult.

Yet, in his letter to the chief Republican authors of the bill — Rep. Dan Fabian and Sen. Bill Ingebritgtsen — Dayton made few acknowledgements of concern about what many saw were weaknesses in the bill.

Dayton notes unnecessary delays
“We agree,’’ he wrote, “that too many possible business expansions have been delayed unnecessarily in recent years. Minnesota needs, as my Commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency says, ‘permitting at the speed of commerce.’ ’’

Staffers had told environmentalists that Dayton had not made a decision on whether to sign or veto the legislation as late as this morning.

The bill hits Dayton square in the middle of his values.

On the one hand, he agrees with much of the bill: In fact, he issued executive orders that mimic much of the language of the bill. His orders and the bill would shorten the time it takes for a permit to go through processes.

But the bill also contains language that is strongly opposed by the very environmental organizations that support Dayton.

“An OK bill with very bad barnacles’’ is how Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, puts it.

Foes cite ‘the biggest barnacle’
The biggest barnacle of them all, he said, is a bill that would allow businesses to hire their own consultants to do environmental impact statements. Currently in Minnesota, it’s local government organizations or state agencies that hire the consultants who do those impact studies.

To environmentalists and good government types this change would codify the opportunity for conflict of interest.

Dayton barely acknowledged that concern. Instead, he said, the new process makes sense.

“I share the concern of some about assuring the accuracy and integrity of an Environmental Impact Statement or any other environmental assessment, which is contracted by the project proposer rather than the Responsible Government United. However, I also recognize the advantage of this change in reducing the time associated with an EIS.’’

Another provision of the bill also is troubling to its opponents. Those who would want to fight a permit in the courts would be required to go directly to the Minnesota Appeals Court, bypassing district courts. That’s a more expensive process and would prevent all but the wealthy from taking on court fights.

Dayton has faith in appeal process
But Dayton brushed off that concern, instead praising the integrity of the Court of Appeals.

“These high-level, three-judge panels can be relied upon to protect our citizens and our environment from any failures of the permitting process, while reducing considerably the time this process takes.’’

At a news conference this morning, opponents of the fast-tracked bill pleaded with Dayton to veto it.

So why wouldn’t he?

Go back to his values.

Since coming into office, Dayton has promoted the idea that he and Republican legislators must learn to get along.

No longer ‘a no-brainer’
Once upon a time, this bill would have been a no-brainer for Dayton, said environmental activist Julie Jansen.

In 1998, Dayton asked Jansen to be his running mate in a failed bid for governor. She had gained considerable attention as the person who had taken on the devastating pollution caused by large hog and cattle feedlot operations.

It took years of work and scores of studies before Jansen showed that the problems created by poorly managed large hog farms were more harmful than bad smells alone. Hydrogen sulfide, it finally was shown, did cause major health problems for those who lived near poorly-managed operations.

Would the Mark Dayton of 1998 have signed this bill?

“No way,’’ said Jansen.

She also said that she and the governor had been in Facebook communication over the bill in recent weeks. He had through negotiations with legislators been able to remove some of the more onerous legislation that would have lifted some of the hard-fought restrictions on feedlots, she said.

But there still is much that troubles Jansen and other environmentalists.

Morse described this bill as the “first step in the unraveling of the environmental foundation’’ that has been built up over the years.

He also said that recent polls commissioned by the partnership show that  81 percent of Minnesotans don’t want environmental law undermined in the state’s efforts to create jobs.

Republicans have countered that this bill, which was the first bill taken up by the House, is a job-creating, business-friendly bill.

“They have established a new truth,’’ said Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul. “The new truth they say is that Minnesota is ‘open for business’ and that Minnesota is ‘business-friendly.’ That assumes we have not always been business-friendly. We’ve educated our children and the work force, we’ve created a clean environment, we’ve supported the arts and made Minnesota a place where people want to work and do business.’’

But Zellers said this was, first and foremost, a jobs bill.

“Jobs are our top priority,’’ Zellers said. “We ned to remove obstacles in state government that provide more certainty and efficiency in a complex permitting process. Our economic recovery is bolstered by this reasonable regulatory reform. We thank Gov. Dayton for his support of this job critical legislation.’’

For his part,  Morse had said at the morning news conference that if Dayton signed the bill it would show that environmentalists need to be more “pro-active’’ in reaching out to the governor and that “he needs to be more pro-active in reaching out to the people.’’

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Arito Moerair on 03/03/2011 - 12:47 pm.

    Can he use this as a compromise on the budget issue?

  2. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 03/03/2011 - 01:20 pm.

    He needs to stand strong. I’ve had enough of spineless Democrats and Dayton seems to have hope to not be one. He simply needs to ask them to explain to Minnesotans why it’s in our best interest to have these conflicts of interest and higher court costs that – say it with me – hurt small businesses. Once they can do that, or get rid of those measures, it can be signed. Simple as that.

  3. Submitted by scott cantor on 03/03/2011 - 01:42 pm.

    Dayton should take a well-worn page out of Pawlenty’s playbook: “I want to work with you on this bill. Here’s exactly what I’m willing to sign into law. If you go beyond this, I will veto it. I dare you to try to override me.”

  4. Submitted by C.A. Arneson on 03/03/2011 - 02:02 pm.

    Veto HF 1.

    The problem is not the environmental review process – it is the quality of projects. If they are good projects they will pass quickly.

    PolyMet is a prime example. When I took an early retirement from teaching and moved to my lake home in Ely I never imagined I would be researching sulfide metal mining for the next five years. When the NorthMet DEIS came out I was appalled by what I read – yet my legislators were touting it as a safe project for our waters – my research told me that was not true. I, and many others, tried to sound the alarm but were largely ignored.

    Then the national political climate changed, and the EPA gave the NorthMet DEIS the lowest rating possible. NorthMet should have been denied at its inception but no one in Minnesota had the political guts to do so.

    If Minnesota did not have the environmental process we have, the public would not have had the time to educate themselves about sulfide mining and object to what our agencies and legislators were attempting to do – trade our lakes for an industrial thirty pieces of copper.

    Today, no technology exists that will protect our waters from sulfide mining. No technology exists that can clean up the contamination. If sulfide mining comes to Minnesota our waters will never be the same. The mining companies know this.

    A 2009 Duluth Metals Nokomis Project Technical Report NI43-101 clearly indicates the industry understanding. On page 19-2 it says the following: “Environmental permitting activities have potential to be the critical path for Project development. The Project is located in a well-established mining area, however, it is also near to recreational land use areas. Although the footprint of the Project can be minimized, the tailings storage requirements for a high-production, long–life operation are significant.”

    The mining companies know as well as I do that sulfide mining generates 99% toxic waste. Use of the Platsol process and limestone treatment is the equivalent of surgically tying off veins not arteries on a severed limb and expecting the patient to live.

    It should also be noted that the Duluth Metals project area is actually an area that has never been mined and is adjacent to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Its watersheds are rich reservoirs that feed the BWCAW and Voyageurs National Park. Massive sulfide mining cannot be done in such a water rich environment without significant, irreversible destruction of that environment.

    The bottom line is not acquiring revenue for state or corporate coffers, or acknowledging we all use metals, or knowing that jobs are important. In Minnesota, our bottom line is choosing to preserve our waters – our sustainable and greatest wealth – or not.

    Minnesota does not need streamlining. It needs people with moral backbone.

  5. Submitted by Tim Walker on 03/03/2011 - 03:27 pm.

    These comments need to be forwarded to Dayton!

  6. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 03/03/2011 - 04:48 pm.

    Dear Governor Dayton,

    It is a worthy goal to try to find compromises on difficult issues, but if you have to sell your soul to do so, and those disagreeing with you are giving up essentially nothing, that’s not compromise, that some combination of appeasement and capitulation.

    Please do not follow the Obama model. Please use compromise only if the Republicans come halfway (or more) to your side. Do not compromise at all if the issues are as important as permanent and very expensive damage to the natural environment.

    In my opinion, this bill does not meet that requirement.

  7. Submitted by Alan Muller on 03/03/2011 - 07:37 pm.

    A shameful decision by the Governor. But where do enviro interests have to go?

    Personally I assign a lot of blame to the “Minnesota Environmental Partnership” and it’s members. When they didn’t object to Dayton’s rollover Executive Order, they signaled it would be safe to ignore them.

    Now, it’s clear that protecting the future of Minnesota is going to depend on new orgs, new leadership, new approaches, new energy…. (Where will it come from?) The corpse of the environmental “establishment” is laid out for all to see. Sad, but facts must be faced.

    You can let Governor Dayton know how you feel about this:

    Governor’s office:
    Phone: 651-201-3400 or 800-657-3717
    Fax: 651-797-1850

    “Why is it that the destruction of something created by humans
    is called vandalism yet the destruction of something created by
    nature is called development?”
    – Edward Abbey

  8. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 03/03/2011 - 10:01 pm.

    Governor Dayton, thank you for taking a small step in rescuing this state from the radical environmentalist.

    Many of these “flat-earth” radical environmentalists oppose all progress by obstructing the new Stillwater Bridge, all nuclear power, and low energy prices by restricting the drilling for U.S. oil.

    It also looks like U.S. congressman Peterson will help rescue the EPA from the radical environmentalist as well.

    Progress and jobs will result in a “moderate” approach to environmental issues.

  9. Submitted by Joe Musich on 03/03/2011 - 10:04 pm.

    Well I care about two things which are protecting our health through caring for the environment and educating the public. The man is zero for two.
    I suppose I’ll have to sell the house because it looks like a foolsball stadium is next. Would HF 1 be open to judical review for any reason ?

  10. Submitted by Rod Loper on 03/04/2011 - 07:29 am.

    Republicans and mining interests claim that privatizing and speeding up the environmental impact statement process while cutting staff
    im these agencies is the way to go. What a joke!
    Actually, they fear letting judges at the local
    level handle these cases. In the case of feedlots and power plants, those judges can smell. Post
    #4 is right. Our agencies are already compromising the environment as it is. It is
    time to protect it not destroy it.

  11. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 03/04/2011 - 09:16 am.

    New environmentally-damaging projects will now be the order of the day, with wealthy business interests able to cherry pick people who will produce for them EXACTLY the environmental impact statements they want.

    Local governments, who have, I believe, the “final say” will be only to easy for the Chamber of Commerce to pressure into approving damaging projects because they’ll want the jobs NOW and the future be damned.

    The Court of Appeals is, of course, now stacked with judge appointed by, hmmm…

    let’s see…

    Oh, yeah, Governor Pawlenty: judges who can be depended upon to come down on the side of business under any and all circumstances (unlike local judges who live where these projects will be doing their damage).

    So, yeah, a few years down the road, we’ll become Minnesota, the land of 1,000 lakes where it’s safe to fish and swim and 9,000 lakes which are so dead and smell so bad that you’ll only want to go to your lake home in the middle of winter (but the polluted lakes won’t freeze anymore, so no ice fishing, but that’s OK because the few remaining fish will be toxic to humans).

    Meanwhile, the Calumet dead zone will run down several rivers in Northeastern Minnesota and kill everything in the entire SW quadrant of Lake Superior, making the Reserve Mining taconite tailings problem look like just a little dust to be wiped off your furniture.

    We can, of course, kiss the tourism industry goodbye.

    Sorry, Gov. Dayton, but this wasn’t a compromise. It was a setup. You’ve been HAD.

  12. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 03/04/2011 - 09:19 am.

    Oh, and by the way, the standard techniques contained in that old book, “Getting to Yes” which you appear, like President Obama, to be trying to use, assume that you’re dealing with psychologically healthy, functional opponents.

    They WILL NOT work on this current Republican legislature. If you continue to take this approach they will get everything they want from you, and give you NOTHING in return.

  13. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 03/05/2011 - 10:09 pm.

    “New environmentally-damaging projects will now be the order of the day, with wealthy business interests able to cherry pick people who will produce for them EXACTLY the environmental impact statements they want.”

    This is completely true. In my experience, this sell-out only formalizes what the agencies under Pawlenty and at least one previous governor have been doing for years. Frankly, the Pawlenty loaded courts are not much better.

    The recent rubber stamping of two petroleum pipelines by the Pawlenty PUC to enable the environmentally catastrophic Alberta tar sands projects are just one example of Minnesota officials keeping the true environmental effects of business decisions on our air, water, food and other resources. That’s bad for business if people know these projects approved by the State are killing them slowly. Better to let the businesses themselves submit an “environmental impact statement” that serves as a public relations corporate propaganda.

  14. Submitted by Herbert Davis on 03/06/2011 - 07:59 am.

    As a pro-business environmentalist I’d like to point out that under this new process the Polymet proposal would have been doing business and ignoring all impacts on the environment. The project was approved by state agencies and rejected by the EPA and sent back for review.

    I want lots of sustainable jobs and a place that is as good years from now as it is today!

  15. Submitted by John Shardlow on 03/06/2011 - 11:00 am.

    I must admit I find the angst caused by this bill confusing. There isn’t anything either alarming about this, nor does it represent much in the way of streamlining. For starters, I have been involved in the preparation and review of literally hundreds of environmental review documents since the beginning of the Minnesota Environmental Review Program. I have represented both the Responsible Governmental Units (RGUs) and the project proponents. There have been numerous times when the proposer either produced the first draft document, or provided information to the RGU in a format suitable for inclusion in the EAW, EIS, or AUAR.
    What seems to be lost in this discussion is that no matter who prepares the document, it has to be approved for distribution by the RGU. There is also a scoping process when all of the agencies and the public get to wade in, then there is the actual review process, a public hearing when the RGU determines the adequacy of the document and then an appeal period.
    Environmental advocacy groups need to own the fact that Minnesota’s Environmental Review Program has been routinely misuded throughout its history by groups seeking to obstruct the process and stop projects they don’t like. They have not participated in a sincere attempt to understand the facts about environmental effects, but rather to find any way to delay the process and foster political opposition.
    A far better model for streamlining would be to emulate the approach Chicago developed under Mayor Daly. Their matra was to “make it easier to do better”. If developers agreed to follow the new Greed Code and meet higher standards for environmental performance, they would benefit from an expedited process, lower fees and staff assistance. In order for this approach to work regulators and project proposers would have to agree on standards and the definition of what it means to meet higher standards.
    There is no doubt in my mind that if project proposers could be provided certainty about outcomes and avoid costly delays and risk they would be willing to commit to meeting higher standards. This is a classic win-win, with investment flowing into our economy and better protection for our environment.

  16. Submitted by Elanne Palcich on 03/07/2011 - 12:30 pm.

    In regard to comment #15, what is alarming is that the environmental process is being engineered to promote industry while at the same time the legislature and regulatory agencies are lowering standards in order to facilitate copper-nickel sulfide mining in the state.

    Citizens need to be able to protect their back yards. According to the new streamlining bill, citizen comment time will be limited to 30 days. Citizens were granted 90 days to review the 1800 pages of the PolyMet DEIS over the Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s holiday of 2009-2010. While it was teeth-grinding work, citizen comment mirrored the EPA conclusions that rated the DEIS as Environmentally Unsatisfactory.

    And yes, Barr Engineering was hired by PolyMet to do much of the technical work for the DEIS. That work was all skewed to protect mining interests and downplay environmental risks.

    No. 15 is right–this is no way to do environmental analysis. And yes, what we do need are strong laws. What we need right now is a moratorium on copper-nickel sulfide mining in the state of Minnesota. What the agencies need to do first is figure out how to enforce clean-up of the existing taconite operations in the state. Then somebody needs to actually figure out how to do the clean-up.

    In the meantime, litigation is the only option for citizens to argue that environmental law is not being followed. The streamlining law now makes this much more difficult. Again, the basic purpose of this law is to facilitate copper-nickel sulfide mining because it cannot meet current laws and standards that would allow for its permitting.

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