Dayton creates new environmental citizen board

Gov. Mark Dayton
Gov. Mark Dayton talked to reporters about the new Governor's Committee to Advise the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Tuesday, August 4, 2015.
Destanie Martin-Johnson | MPR News

Updated: 5:03 p.m. | Posted: 12:06 p.m.

Gov. Mark Dayton on Tuesday partially revived the environmental citizen's board that was eliminated during this year's legislative session.

During an annual event organized by the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, Dayton announced an executive order that creates a Governor's Committee to Advise the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

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The new group, which will consist of eight members plus the MPCA commissioner, won't have the same decision-making authority as the MPCA Citizens' Board, which was created in 1967. But Dayton said it was important to re-establish a committee to be a forum for public input and discussion on important environmental issues.

"It shouldn't have been taken away to begin with," Dayton said. He said he'll push to restore the board's authority, though likely not next year, when the House Republicans who opposed the MPCA board will still be in office.

"They consider this one of their trophies," he said.

But Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, who oversees the House environment committee, denied Dayton's characterization and said he's surprised the governor is trying to "redo" the Legislature's work so soon.

"I don't look at legislation we do as trophies," he said, adding that the legislation passed in the DFL-controlled Senate, as well. "We reached an agreement with the administration to move on and modernize the process and that's what we've done."

McNamara said he doubts the Legislature would approve funding for the new committee, but according to the executive order, members can only earn $55 per day for participating in meetings.

Despite the new group's lack of authority, those who fought the Citizens' Board's abolition said Dayton's move is a good first step.

"Really if we don't keep the infrastructure and keep it moving, we won't be able to reinstate it, so I think he did exactly the right thing," said Bobby King, an organizer at the Land Stewardship Project.

Dayton also addressed a variety of questions from the Minnesota Environmental Partnership crowd:

PolyMet's proposed copper-nickel mine

Dayton announced that after Labor Day he will visit at least two sites that each side of the debate thinks proves its point that the mine should or should not be built.

"I want to see firsthand what the upside could be as well as what the downside could be," he said.

The Department of Natural Resources and the other agencies overseeing the project's environmental review hope to issue a final Environmental Impact Statement late this fall.

"I can assure you that rigor will be applied. ... I'm not going to promise I'm going to read [all 3,000 pages] but I'm going to read the parts that are relevant to the decision, and then the environmental considerations and financial considerations are also a part of it. ... I've got a lot of questions. ... This will be the most momentous, difficult and controversial decision I'll make as governor."

Dayton said he lived through the controversy over the Boundary Waters wilderness and said the fight over PolyMet "could be all that and worse."

Dayton said even if the environmental review is deemed adequate, "that means the permitting process starts, it doesn't mean the permits are going to be granted."

PolyMet officials said in a written statement that the company has "spent 10 years and more than $83 million following Minnesota's very stringent environmental review process to demonstrate that we can meet all the standards" and that officials will continue to focus on that process. The company expects more than 1,000 direct and indirect new jobs would be created in an economically stressed area.

Agriculture's impact on water quality

"This will be a persistent effort on my part for the next three and a half years -- you've got the water that's leaching into the groundwater. ... [MPCA] surveyed 93 streams and other bodies of water in southwestern Minnesota and only three of them were habitable by fish and aquatic life and only one of them was swimmable. ... When wastewater treatment plants fail, cities have to go out and provide free bottled water. And one comment was made that, 'this is farm country, we just have to live with this.' Well, we don't have to live with it, and we can't live with it. I think farmers are by and large very responsible people. ... What people do on their land is within legal limits, their business, but what they do to the water that flows off the land or under the land that affects all of us and all of our safety and well-being, it's everybody's business. I just refuse to believe that we have to accept this kind of contamination because it's farm country. We don't accept it in mining country. We don't accept it in the metropolitan area. ... We're not just going to turn our backs and say we're going to provide free rein even though people are doing really important work. And if that makes me an enemy of agriculture, I regret that, but there's too much at stake here."

EPA's new carbon emissions regulation

"It's a great opportunity. We're stewards of the land and the air, and it's a great economic opportunity to be in the lead. ... We have a great opportunity to not only build an economy based on [renewable energy technology] here, but also to export that technology and expertise all over the world."

Oil pipelines

"Conservation is the best source of energy, and the cleanest, but there are limits to what that's going to achieve. We're going to have to move oil, unfortunately. [Oil from the Bakken in North Dakota] needs to be transported to eastern markets, and that means through Minnesota. Until we don't need oil anymore, and that day hasn't come yet, we're going to need to transport it either by rail or by pipelines. Rail lines are already jammed up; we're an accident waiting to happen. ... So to do without the pipelines, I don't see that as a feasible option. How they should be routed, how they should be built and monitored is something we need to do as carefully as possible.