Environmental groups upset with permit streamlining bill

Gov. Mark Dayton Thursday signed a bill designed to streamline the state's environmental review processes. Environmental groups say it's a sign that natural resource protections are being unraveled in the state.

House File 1 and Senate File 1 were the top priorities for the new Republican-controlled legislature. They sped through the House and Senate, before Dayton signed them into law.

Dayton said Minnesota needs to improve the permitting process, because "too many possible business expansions have been delayed in recent years."

The measure sets goals that state agencies should issue or deny all environmental permits within 150 days of submission.

It also moves disputes over agency decisions directly to the Appeals Court, skipping the District Courts, which are physically closer to citizens affected by many projects.

The chief author in the House, Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, said in the long run the bill will create jobs.

"It's one piece of the puzzle, it's not the entire solution, this is not going to all of a sudden open up the floodgates and create tens of thousands of jobs," he said. "But it is important to send a message out, it's important that businesses and cities and counties that are doing projects, whether it's a water treatment plant, they'll know they can do these projects more expeditiously."

Environmental groups say they're disappointed with Dayton's decision. They say the streamlining measure is one of several advancing in the legislature that "threaten to unravel Minnesota's foundation of environmental protections."

Steve Morse, from the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, said in a news conference before Dayton signed the bill that the measure went through the legislature too quickly to be properly understood and debated.

"It's a reasonable idea that's gone bad, an unfortunate situation, it's un-Minnesotan, it turns back the clock on our environmental protections, and we didn't have a good process getting here. So there's really nothing to be proud of here," he said.

Environmentalists were particularly critical of a provision of the bill that allows businesses to hire their own consultants to prepare environmental impact statements.

But Dayton said he's confident the legislation still allows local units of government to have the final say on the statements, and to request more information if they aren't satisfied with what businesses give them. Dayton also said he will issue another executive order directing state agencies to ensure that environmental standards are met.

The Office of the Legislative Auditor issued a report one day after the House and Senate approved the measure.

The report made several recommendations for improvement -- including training for local governments that are not used to doing environmental reviews, and examining the feasibility of allowing certain low-risk proposals to bypass the review process.

The OLA report said the Pollution Control Agency issues permits for private sector projects within 150 days, 93 percent of the time. It said projects that take longer are usually more complicated.

The PCA and the DNR both say they will need to reassign staff to create the reports required in the legislation.