A new report recommends that the state of Minnesota bolster its main environmental oversight body and encourage more transparency in the review process.
The recommendations may not make for considerable change to the Environmental Quality Board in the short run, but observers say they have the potential to improve the state's performance.
Last year, Gov. Mark Dayton directed the EQB to make recommendations for how it could improve overall environmental governance, specifically the environmental review process.
The EQB consists of the commissioners of nine state agencies and four citizens. It was created in 1972, but over the years its staff has shrunk and it seldom has the resources to fulfill its original mandate of studying and coordinating on issues that go beyond the purview of a single state agency.
Over the last year, the EQB has concentrated on studying the issues mandated by the governor.
On overall governance, the board looked at five alternatives, ranging from leaving things as they are to abolishing the EQB, with various reorganization schemes in between.
The board today is expected to approve a plan that calls for a revitalized EQB, with as many as ten staff people — more than double the current contingent.
"Anytime we can involve the public and get citizen input earlier in the process, I think is a good thing."
Dave Fredrickson, commissioner of agriculture and the chair of the EQB, said Minnesota's environment will benefit if the board can plan ahead.
"They can look into the future and anticipate problems that we may hit head-on, so rather than react, we can as a board act on some of those important issues," Fredrickson said.
He cites silica sand mining as an important issue; the board has been asked to do a Generic Environmental Impact Statement on that subject. If the board had more staff, that task could actually be completed.
On the environmental review process itself, the plan directs the EQB to educate and supervise local governments that lack experience in preparing environmental reviews and to provide more information for the public early in the life of a proposed project.
That directive wins praise from Tony Kwilas, director of environmental policy for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.
"The earlier citizen and public involvement, the better. Because then it will answer most of the questions that the citizens and public usually have," Kwilas said. "Anytime we can involve the public and get citizen input earlier in the process, I think is a good thing."
Kwilas is skeptical about one idea — that the EQB should create an electronic public portal to make all documents in environmental review and permitting easily accessible to the public. Kwilas said existing web pages work well enough.
But electronic access to comprehensive information is one of the things Paula Maccabee likes best in the recommendations. Maccabee is an attorney with the environmental advocacy group, Water Legacy.
"The EQB is recommending that environmental review step into the 21st century and provide electronic access to citizens," Maccabee said. "Instead of having to call up a staff member and say, 'can I have a document,' they can go onto a computer and find out what they need to know about pollution; what they need to know about permits, and what they need to know about treatment."
The EQB will present its recommendations to the governor Thursday. He may be able to implement some of them by executive action, but the legislature will likely get involved in staffing increases, at the very least.
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