Committee approves environmental permit streamlining

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Gov. Mark Dayton’s executive order that will streamline the environmental permitting process within two state agencies did not deter the House Civil Law Committee from approving a bill that would similarly modify timelines, plus two additional modifications.

The bipartisan goal is to make the permit application process more efficient with the Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency so that businesses are not inclined to move to another state.

Sponsored by Rep. Dan Fabian (R-Roseau), HF1 would require the DNR and MPCA to issue or deny environmental and resource management permits within 150 days of a submitted application. So does the executive order, which takes effect in mid-February. The bill would also allow the judicial review process to be done directly by the Court of Appeals. Now, a district court performs the work.

Thaddeus Lightfoot, an attorney with The Environmental Law Group, said the district and appeals courts perform essentially the same review and is a duplication of effort and attorney fees. But citizen groups oppose removing the stop in district court, which is typically geographically closer to those who want to attend a court hearing.

The other wrinkle in HF1 is the provision that would allow the proposer of a project to prepare a draft environmental impact statement, rather than the state agency that requires it. Fabian said a $12,000 ditch cleanup project in his district has escalated to $405,000 due to government inaction. Such cases “crush our local economy,” he said.

However, Rep. Mary Liz Holberg (R-Lakeville) and several DFL members said the bill, as written, may not accomplish Fabian’s intent to keep the environmental review process publicly transparent. Some fear the bill would enable private companies to prepare the draft EIS and to withhold information under the Data Practices Act.

“Any proposer would be foolish to get caught doing that,” Fabian said.

Holberg said she’ll work with Fabian and other committee members to clarify the language.

Rep. Bill Hilty (DFL-Finlayson) unsuccessfully offered to table the vote until an environmental permit process review, now underway by the Office of the Legislative Auditor, is released. The vote was 10-6.

The bill now goes to the House Judiciary Policy and Finance Committee. Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen (R-Alexandria) sponsors its companion, SF42, which awaits action by the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee.