July 1 will be “a sad day for democracy, a sad day for citizen engagement, open government and environmental protection in Minnesota,” said Jim Riddle at the last meeting of the Citizens’ Board of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency today. That date marks the legislative end of the Citizens’ Board, in retaliation for the board’s 2014 decision to require an environmental impact statement from a proposed 9,000-cow mega-dairy operation in Baker Township, Stevens County near Chokio, Minnesota.
The Citizens’ Board decision came after they evaluated the evidence and heard the overwhelming local demand for an environmental impact statement. The Morris Sun Tribune reported at the time that the Baker Township board had sent letters to all registered voters, and 70 percent opposed the dairy. In addition,
“Twenty-four comment letters were received, six of them from government agencies and 18 from citizens – all requesting that an Environmental Impact Statement be completed.
“The concerns brought up in the letters addressed groundwater supply, odor and manure management, damage to roads and wetlands, and the socioeconomic concerns that large dairies are driving small farmers out of business and driving up the prices of cropland.”
You might think that a Citizens’ Board should respond to the voices of citizens. You might think that an MPCA board should evaluate evidence, including evidence of the groundwater impact of four mega-dairies, four to six miles apart in Stevens County. Or the evidence that the proposed dairy did not have contracts for enough acres to spread its manure. Or the current — not five years old — data on irrigation and other deep wells in the area. You might think so. The Citizens’ Board thought so. But the legislature did not.
The decision to abolish the board was debated, but not passed by either the House or Senate. Then, as the clock ticked down, the abolition was added to the conference committee bill.
The dairy case was the final straw, but the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and big agribusiness have been gunning for the Citizens’ Board for years. They want less regulation, less oversight, less review. MPR’s timeline explained the role of the board:
“For decades, the citizens’ panel oversaw decisions like whether to require an in-depth environmental study for a project, or whether a new water quality rule was justified. That work will be done now by the MPCA commissioner and staff, “but I know for sure that it won’t be done as well,” said Dan Foley, who’s been on the board for 30 years.
“Specializing in toxicology, Foley is one of dozens of Minnesotans who brought unique perspectives to the board and were paid a $55 per diem to attend monthly meetings. Foley says most board members spent hours poring over hundreds of pages of technical documents, scrutinizing them and asking project proposers and agency staff pointed questions.”
Though the Citizens’ Board rarely disagreed with MPCA staff decisions, it offered one more opportunity for local residents to be heard. Abolishing the Citizens’ Board is one way to weaken Minnesota’s environmental protection. The legislature found plenty of others, as the Star Tribune noted in a June 10 editorial:
“Among the lowlights: raiding millions of dollars from landfill cleanup funds, abolishing the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) Citizens’ Board, exempting mining sulfide waste from solid-waste rules, allowing cities to unsustainably tap dwindling aquifers, and putting in place costly and time-consuming new hurdles clearly intended to keep state pollution control officials from doing their jobs.”
The next legislature should reverse these abominations. There’s no reason to believe that they will. So now is the time to start building your checklist of questions for candidates in the 2016 legislative election. One of those questions should be: “Will you restore the MPCA Citizens’ Board?”