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Permitting law fails to include key suggestions from auditor’s report

Gov. Mark Dayton’s decision Thursday to sign legislation streamlining environmental permitting comes days after an extensive report by the legislative auditor painting the permitting process as costly and fraught with delay.
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Gov. Mark Dayton decision’s Thursday to sign legislation streamlining environmental permitting comes days after an extensive report by the legislative auditor painting the permitting process as costly and fraught with delay.

After signing the legislation, Dayton wrote a letter to the bill’s sponsors saying it “addresses the concerns raised by the Legislative Auditor’s recent report.”

But Jody Hauer, evaluation manager for the report, said many of the report’s suggested improvements are not included in the legislation.

“There’s many things we recommend that the bill doesn’t even start to consider,” Hauer said.

While legislation sets a 150-day deadline for agencies to decide whether to grant a company a permit, any extensions beyond the deadline must be explained.  

The audit found the majority of cases are already completed in that timeframe. From 2007 to 2010, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) made 82 percent of permit decisions within 150 days. When low-priority decisions are removed, that number nears 92 percent, MPCA Commissioner Paul Aasen said.

But a more aggressive deadline and transparency for lengthy cases can’t hurt, Aasen said, adding, “I can’t see a downside.”

Trying to tackle data-handling and environmental-review issues in the legislation along with permitting would have been too much at once, he said.

But Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, said the Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee’s decision to pass the bill on to the governor without seeing the report was bad policy.

“Talk about working in the dark,” said Wagenius, who voted against the bill in committee. She’s taking the 119-page report home to sift through this weekend.

Four years of data
The report covers four years of data from local government agencies, the MPCA and Department of Natural Resources (DNR) — the three groups handling most of the state’s private project proposals, like animal feedlots and campgrounds. A project’s size and location help determine whether a review is necessary to obtain a permit, so a campground with more than 50 sites needs to be evaluated, and one with 100 sites along lakeshore needs even deeper investigation. The environmental impacts are then made public.

The legislative auditor suggested a pilot project where some low-risk proposals be allowed to bypass the review to speed things up.

While the report gives a fact-based evaluation of environmental review instead of relying on “anecdotes and horror stories,” it doesn’t go far enough, said Scott Strand, executive director of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.

“There really wasn’t any analysis of how can we make this stuff work better to protect the environment. It was all about how can we make this faster and cheaper,” Strand said.

The report was limited by the data available, Hauer said. The MPCA and DNR didn’t keep track of when the agencies received proposals, leaving auditors to thumb through paper documents, trying to piece together where the work piled up.

“We weren’t able to do the kind of in-depth analysis we thought was necessary because the data simply were lacking,” she said.

Where are the delays?
The legislative auditor’s office ascertained that most of the delays came at the beginning of the process, when proposers failed to submit information properly.

Responsible government units are supposed to ensure that reviews — in the form of an environmental assessment worksheet or more rigorous environmental impact statement — are complete. But they are often incompetent. Local government handles 75 percent of the state’s private projects, meaning small cities that may only see one project every few years are taking on complicated cases.

“We interviewed the people involved and they acknowledged that they lacked experience, lacked expertise, and they thought it hampered their efforts,” Hauer said. “It wasn’t that anyone was trying to hide anything — they did the best they could, but that wasn’t sufficient.”

Creating educational services, like webinars, would improve agencies accuracy and eliminate some delays, according to the report, along with greater clarity in what’s expected of proposers. The Environmental Quality Board could step up to take a more educational role, but that would require increased funding for the department, which currently only has one full-time staff member working with reviews.

The legislative auditor’s office can’t guarantee that any of the suggestions would speed things up, Hauer said.

“But something needs to happen to improve the process and without improving the environmental review process — there’s a lot of time and a lot of resources that go into that process — it will continue in the same way it has for over the last several decades,” Hauer said.

Jessie Van Berkel is a MinnPost intern and can be reached at JVanBerkel [at] minnpost [dot] com.