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Lawmakers eyeing state's environmental regulatory process for changes

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A battle is brewing in the Legislature over efforts to reform the state's environmental permitting process and delay the implementation of water quality standards

Depending on whom you ask, the measures would either launch a coordinated attack on Minnesota's bedrock environmental protections — or improve an unwieldy, job-killing system.

For nearly a decade, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce has pushed legislation to streamline what they see as a slow and burdensome process for getting the go-ahead on development projects. 

"One of the things we hear consistently is, it takes too long, and it costs too much, and I'm not sure we're going to get a permit when I get through the environmental review process," said Tony Kwilas, director of environmental policy at the chamber. 

He says his members want to reduce that uncertainty. 

"At least be able to tell how long it's going to take, and how much it's going to cost, because when we can't provide those answers, people look elsewhere for economic development projects," he said

The chamber supports more than a dozen changes to the permitting process now followed by the Department of Natural Resources and Pollution Control Agency. Those changes have been rolled into an environment bill that passed its first legislative committee Wednesday. 

Most are highly technical, says Aaron Klemz with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. But he says taken together they would give project developers too large a role in the process, and take away the voice of citizens. 

"Minnesota voters did not vote to dismantle Minnesota's environmental protections," Klemz said. "And we hope that Minnesota's lawmakers heed that lesson."

Perhaps the most controversial proposal would eliminate the Environmental Quality Board. The EQB, which was created 44 years ago, consists of nine state agency commissioners and five citizen members. 

It's designed to help different state agencies work together on complex environmental issues. 

Dave Frederickson, commissioner of agriculture and chair of the EQB, on Wednesday told the state Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resource Finance that he thinks eliminating the EQB is a bad idea.

"Passing this bill will eliminate a board that has proven to be essential to state coordination and public debate on the environment," he said. "We hear from the public that they want more opportunities to participate and engage, not less."

But state Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said the EQB's duties would be spread out among state agencies where the public would still have access. 

"I take issue with folks that think by moving this bill forward we're going to desecrate the state of Minnesota as far as pollution, as far as water, air. I take issue with that with the amount of meetings that go on, and the transparency from every level," he said.

Another proposal included in the bill would allow for an independent review of Pollution Control Agency science that affects wastewater treatment plants. 

Attorney Daniel Marx, who represents the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, said if cities are going to be asked to spend tens of millions of dollars on pollution controls, they want to make sure it's justified. 

"I think this would go a long way to enhancing credibility between rural communities and the pollution control agency, improving that relationship," he said.

The bill would also delay enforcing state water quality standards on phosphorous for two years. 

Many of the proposals would actually slow down environmental permitting, not speed, said PCA commissioner Jon Linc Stine. 

"What these provisions do across the board is bog down the process of making decisions, they extend them, and they create obstacles to efficiency that we have worked diligently during the Dayton administration to streamline and make more effective," he said.

Back in 2011, Gov. Mark Dayton supported legislation and signed an executive order designed to speed up environmental permitting. But at a news conference Wednesday he said this year's bill attempts to delay rule-making. 

"This is all about thwarting the various efforts that have been made, the progress that has been made to improve the quality of our environment," he said.

Dayton has also said he will not sign any bill that eliminates the Environmental Quality Board.