Jim Falk, a fourth generation farmer from Swift County, warns that pending legislation billed as “streamlining” environmental protection actually endangers community rights and local control.
A whole set of proposed laws aims to streamline regulation, make bureaucracy move faster, cut the red tape are moving through the legislative process. Among the proposals:
- speed up environmental review, so that permit decisions have to be made within 150 days;
- make it more difficult or impossible for local government bodies to pass interim ordinances to give them time to consider big-box or big-bovine industrial farming proposals;
- move all court challenges to environmental permits out of local (district) courts and into the Court of Appeals in St. Paul;
- allow industries rather than regulators to prepare Environmental Impact Statements.
Speeding up permitting
Governor Mark Dayton has already issued an executive order directing the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Department of Natural Resources to “set a goal” of deciding on permit applications within 150 days. As Brian Devore of the Land Stewardship Project points out:
There’s been a lot of talk about the expense of a non-streamlined environmental review process. But what about the cost of projects that, either because of location or other factors, turn out not to be such a good idea? Excel Dairy is a prime example of how something that was presented as “economic development” has turned out to be a massive burden on the public.
The MPCA finally shut down Excel Dairy, but only after years of sickness and suffering and hundreds of hours of exasperating (and unpaid) labor by the neighbors to get it shut down. The final shutdown came after the farm was declared a public health hazard to “families living near the Excel Dairy who were told to evacuate the area by the Minnesota Department of Health because of repeated hydrogen sulfide violations.”
Even the current permitting process-dominated by big-ag interests on the boards that review permits-is skewed in favor of permit applicants. Speeding up the process, especially at a time of budget and personnel cuts that leave fewer experts in place to review applications, will only make matters worse. HF1, the bill that will mandate and make permanent a shorter time frame for review, has been passed by both houses and is sitting on Governor Dayton’s desk this morning.
Taking away local control
The legislation that Jim Falk focused on when we talked at the Land Stewardship Project breakfast in February, wants to remove another safeguard: the ability of townships and counties to pass interim local ordinances. In effect, such an ordinance is like hitting the “pause” button. It gives the local government bodies time to analyze the proposal and decide whether they need a permanent ordinance to “put parameters and conditions on that type of project.”
Most of the time, Falk says, townships or counties have never experienced really large-scale projects, whether those are California-size dairy operations or industrial junkyards. Some operations are “so big that they can change the nature of the community forever.” When one of these big operations shows up in a rural community, they are ready to move fast, and can push through the necessary permits while their neighbors-to-be have time to figure out what kind of safeguards they will need.
In these circumstances, Falk said, the power of townships to pass an “interim ordinance” is key, allowing local residents to put a temporary moratorium on rezoning or permitting until they can analyze the proposed project and its impact on the community. An interim ordinance can allow time for hearings and study, so that the proper parameters and conditions can be put in place.
Falk, who farms a thousand acres, is not anti-business, but he is definitely pro-local control. The first priority of business, Falk notes, is the bottom line, and that’s fine, but that’s also why the environmental permitting process needs community input, too. If the business is a good fit, and is sensitive to the neighborhood, “it’s probably going to be fine.”
The streamlining proposals, says Falk, go too far. They are focused on speed, and lack respect for the process of community review and input. “If we’re going to remove the ability for townships or counties to put an interim ordinance in place,” he says, we will have “removed the voice of the people.”
Centralizing court challenges
Brian Devore succinctly summarized the problems with proposals to take away local jurisdiction over legal challenges to issuing environmental permits:
Under the proposal, they would not deal with the District Court in their area (as they do currently), but the Minnesota Court of Appeals in the Twin Cities. This not only increases the expense of filing a challenge, but limits citizens’ participation by forcing them to travel to the Twin Cities or a satellite courtroom to have their day in court. Attorneys for project proposers, on the other hand-many of which are based in the Twin Cities-prefer utilizing the Court of Appeals.
The moves to centralize court proceedings and remove local interim ordinance power seem to be not only bad environmental choices, but also a strange policy direction for Republicans who supposedly oppose centralizing government power and support local control.
Fox in the Chicken Coop
The environmental permitting process currently has two levels of assessment. The first is the Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW), which is prepared by the project proposer, the business. Usually, this is the only document used in making the permit decision.
In some cases, the EAW raises a red flag about potential problems. In those cases, “where there is potential for significant environmental effects resulting from any major governmental action,” such as granting a permit, the more detailed, in-depth Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is prepared by the “responsible government unit.” (Section 116D.04 Minnesota Statutes)
The new legislation would remove the possibility of independent government assessment via the Environmental Impact Statement. The Minnesota Environmental Partnership describes the change:
The bill also would allow the advocate of a project to prepare the EIS and then have the Responsible Government Agency (RGU) review and approve the document. This is referred to as the “fox guarding the chicken coop” approach to environmental review.
An amendment added on the floor exempts the IRRRB from MEPA’s requirement that environmental impacts be taken into consideration before making financial decisions relating to proposals in front of the IRRRB. MEP believes strongly that before the IRRRB decides to loan public money to a project such as PolyMet, it should first understand the environmental impacts of what it is funding.