Environmental groups concerned about plan to streamline business permits

Drilling for metals
Franconia Minerals has explored for copper/nickel and platinum group metals, drilling from this barge into the bottom of Birch Lake. Franconia's project is one of at least six promising non-ferrous mines considered in northeast Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

Minnesota's leading business lobbying group says the state's environmental review and permitting processes aren't working, and it wants to make some changes -- including allowing project developers to conduct their own reviews.

The state's environmental review and permitting processes are designed to make sure that projects like mines, roads, housing developments, ethanol plants, and feedlots don't result in permanent harm to the state's air, land, and water.

But the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce says its members have been complaining for years that the process is confusing, and takes too long.

Republican legislators have introduced bills designed to address the complaints. House File 1 and Senate File 1 are getting top priority.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

Both bills propose three major changes.

First: State agencies should have a goal of issuing environmental permits within 150 days from the time the developer's application is complete.

The Chamber's environmental policy director, Tony Kwilas, stresses that it's only a goal. If a permit takes longer, the agency would have to report in detail the reasons why.

"If it's the first non-ferrous mine in the state, that's understandable that you're not going to turn that permit over in 150 days," he said. "If it's a dry cleaner in Crookston, Minnesota, why aren't you turning that permit over in five months?"

A report last year from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency said state and local governments typically do about 100 environmental reviews a year, and the median time to complete them is about seven and a half months. That means half the projects took less time, half took more.

The report noted that projects often take longer if they're very complicated, if there's a lot of public interest and comment, and if several units of government are involved, especially the federal government.

The legislation's requirement that agencies report on why a project took longer than 150 days could help identify the biggest stumbling blocks.

Second: Project proposers could prepare environmental impact statements themselves. Currently, those statements are conducted by state or federal agencies. Kwilas says this would not erode the authority of the responsible government agency.

"They're still going to have all the authority to modify, review, or reject the environmental impact statement. It's just an option for the project proposer to take," he said. "We think it saves cost and time on the front end of the environmental impact statement process."

Environmental groups are eyeing the legislation warily. Scott Strand of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy says the idea of letting businesses write their own environmental reviews reminds him of the causes of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

"It was clearly a mistake to exempt those deepwater platforms from environmental review," said Strand. "The environmental review process could have identified some of the concerns which led to the spill down there, and addressed those in the permits before those things got put into operation."

Third: If Minnesota wants to impose stricter environmental standards than the federal government's, the state would have to offer documentation showing the federal standard is not protective enough.

Strand is critical of that provision as well. He, along with other environmental activists, would be happy if the legislative process were to slow down long enough for a new report to come out from the nonpartisan Office of the Legislative Auditor.

For the past year, the office has been studying these very issues in depth, and the report is scheduled to be released in late February.

But the Chamber's Tony Kwilas predicts the Legislature will have passed the proposed revisions by then.

Gov. Dayton promised during his campaign to work on making government more efficient.