Pollution agency oversight may be out of budget

Published 10:07 am Wednesday, June 3, 2015

ST. PAUL — As Gov. Mark Dayton and top lawmakers worked Tuesday to put the finishing touches on a deal cobbling together the final pieces of a budget, environmental advocates hoped to hit the restart button on a spending bill that would gut a nearly 50-year-old oversight board at the state’s pollution control agency.

An environment and agriculture budget was one of few areas to seal up before the governor would call lawmakers back to St. Paul — perhaps later this week. In the end, it’s expected to aid farmers affected by a deadly bird flu outbreak, implement stronger standards for buffer strips between crops and public waterways, and peel back some regulatory powers at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

The final verdict among environmental groups is pending until the finished product comes to light. But they’re worried about Dayton’s public musing that he would sign a bill abolishing the pollution control agency’s Citizens’ Board, an entity they view as integral as a public outlet to protect Minnesota’s water and air quality.

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“I think it’s worth going to the mat to keep this public process in place for the state,” said Steven Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership. “I’m not ready to throw in the towel on yet.”

The nine-member Citizens’ Board is as old as the pollution control agency itself, created in 1967. The board has the final say on whether to issue permits and require extensive environmental impact studies.

A proposal to eliminate the board was among a laundry list of changes groups such as Morse’s and urban Democrats took issue with in the Legislature’s environment budget. Their calls on Dayton to veto the bill paid off, and Dayton himself insisted that lawmakers keep the board intact when he sent the bill back to lawmakers.

Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, said doing away with the board doesn’t mean the end of public input at the pollution control agency. He said its odd authority to trump the agency’s profession staff has “outlived its purpose,” noting the board has rarely reversed agency directives over the years.

McNamara confirmed Tuesday that Dayton and House Republicans had agreed to end the board as part of a brewing deal.

Maintaining that board has been a top priority for the Environmental Partnership and other groups, but Dayton has targeted other provisions in the budget bill he said could have profound impacts on the environment. After announcing a broad framework on a budget deal Monday, he expressed lingering concerns with changes that would grant some northwestern Minnesota cities a 15-year extension to meet clean water standards and allow some companies that self-report pollution violations to escape penalization.

He conceded that ensuring those measures were removed would likely mean agreeing to abolish the Citizens’ Board.

“We got part of it and they got part of it,” Dayton said “That’s the way that compromise turns out.”

Though eliminating the board would be a clear consequence to an environmental budget, Rep. Rick Hansen said the changes Dayton referenced could have longer, lasting effects on the state’s environment. One of House Democrats’ strongest voices on environmental issues, the South St. Paul lawmaker said he pegs some of those regulatory changes as higher priorities than preserving the board.

Until a final deal is on the table, Morse isn’t ready to start making concessions.

“We shouldn’t trade it off,” he said “There’s no basis for this.”