Is Minn.'s protection of the environment ripe for streamlining?

A state Senator is convening a new task force to talk about whether it's time for a fundamental overhaul of the way the state protects the environment.

Business groups complain it's time-consuming and difficult to get permits for projects, and environmental organizations complain the state sometimes caves in and lets people get away with breaking the rules. Meanwhile, citizens can get downright confused when they need permission to fill a wetland, or build a cabin.

State Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, who is heading the task force, said part of the problem is there are half a dozen different agencies responsible for natural resource issues: the Department of Natural Resources, the Board of Water and Soil Resources, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Health and the Department of Agriculture.

Representatives from all sectors of society will be on the task force, Olson said. She said the profusion of agencies and lack of communication among them can make for inefficiencies and confusion.

Olson said these issues are the number one thing she hears about from her constituents.

"I hear a lot about a feeling, at least, that the same rules are not applied the same way to everyone," she said.

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Olson said she's also heard complaints from government workers who say sometimes their decisions, based on science and state rules, are overturned by political appointees at the top.

BUSINESS AGENDA

One group that's been calling for change is the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. Last year, the Chamber backed a measure that would have required the MPCA to try to issue all permits within 150 days. That sounds like a long time, but it has taken more than four years to review the Polymet copper-nickel mine proposed for northeastern Minnesota near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness -- and it's not finished yet.

The idea is to set a goal, not a firm time limit, said the Chamber's environmental policy consultant, Mike Robertson. The agency would have to report periodically on why some permits take longer.

"That puts both the permittee on the line ... and the state agency as well," he said.

He said the report would also document what caused a given delay, adding that it could be caused by the participation of the public, or a need for more scientific and technological information.

Robertson said a similar bill will probably be introduced again during the next legislative session.

ENVIRONMENTAL AGENDA

The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy said it's concerned about inherent conflicts of interest in some agencies. For instance, the Department of Natural Resources promotes mining because it brings money to the state, but it also regulates mining to protect the environment.

The two functions should be separated, said Scott Strand, the advocacy group's executive director.

"I think they're all acting in good faith," Strand said. "But the reality is that when you're answering to two separate objectives, one of them is going to be compromised to some extent."

POGEMILLER: A THANKLESS TASK

Plenty of skepticism abounds as the task force starts its work. The state budget deficit may provide a political push because people are looking everywhere to save money. But experts caution that any change is unlikely to save money in the short term.

Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, launched a similar effort fifteen years ago, and ran into a lot of resistance. He said it's important to push state agencies to be flexible and nimble, but warned that it's a thankless task. Businesses often hire executives specially to make changes, and then get rid of them.

"And so in a political situation, it really takes both courage and savvy to figure out how to pull this off," he said.

The results of discussions held on Friday will be posted on the web; more meetings will be held in the next couple of months -- all open to the public.