Community oversight of MPCA should return this year

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Over the years, Minnesota has been home to some great people-powered ideas on how to protect a healthy environment for all. Voters created the lottery-funded Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund and approved the Clean Water, Land and Legacy amendment. In 2007, we passed the nation-leading Next Generation Energy Act, and this year the 100% carbon free electricity standard.

One of our best ideas was the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) Citizens’ Board, which was created at the same time as the agency itself in 1967. Established in a time of great public engagement in environmental issues (the first Earth Day would take place three years later), the Citizens’ Board was set up to include representation from ordinary Minnesotans in environmental decisions, such as approving permits for factory farms or overseeing projects under environmental review. It included Minnesotans from many walks of life and geographical areas to ensure different skills and values were represented.

The Board had the power to make final permitting decisions based on the work of the MPCA’s professional staff and Commissioner, who served as the Board’s chair. 

A blow to public oversight

In 2014, the Citizens’ Board ordered an environmental impact study on the massive Riverview dairy project, a proposed farm planned to hold 9,000 cattle in the western part of the state. This action went beyond the recommendations of the MPCA Commissioner and agency staff. The Board didn’t come to that decision lightly – many Minnesotans in the area expressed concerns about the dairy’s impacts.

The Board determined that the public deserved more information, though the study would likely cost Riverview time and money. In fact, the dairy company pulled out of the project rather than complete this review of how their project would affect their neighbors and the environment.

This independent decision making seemed to be too much for some businesses – and lawmakers sympathetic to their complaints. During the next legislative session, the Republican-controlled House put language to repeal the Citizens’ Board into a budget bill they sent to Governor Mark Dayton.

Minnesota Environmental Partnership and numerous allies opposed eliminating the Citizens’ Board and called on Governor Dayton to veto the bill if this provision was not removed. It wasn’t and he vetoed it. But after extensive negotiations in a special session, industry interests held strong on the repeal and Governor Dayton ultimately signed the budget bill to keep state government functioning, while vehemently objecting to the included language that caused the Board to be eliminated on July 1, 2015.

Since then, companies proposing controversial and high-profile projects have likely breathed a little easier knowing that the MPCA’s limited regulatory mandate isn’t subject to direct public oversight. 

That’s not to say that MPCA’s scientists don’t do quality, important work – their efforts are critical to protecting our public health and natural resources and ensuring that Minnesotans are informed. But the Citizens’ Board served as a pressure valve, allowing for the environmental and social impacts of a project to be more broadly examined.

The fact that the Citizens’ Board would not always fully agree with the MPCA Commissioner and staff, didn’t reflect badly on the agency, rather, it meant that Minnesotans had a public forum for taking a final, comprehensive look at controversial projects after scientific and legal questions were reviewed. 

It’s for these reasons that MEP has strongly supported restoring the original public oversight to the MPCA. Right now, we believe that goal is within reach.

A legislative fix to a legislative decision

For the past few weeks, MEP has been working with partners like the Land Stewardship Project to get a bill to reinstate the Board drafted and introduced. We’re pleased to report that this legislation is now being considered at the Capitol: Senator Foung Hawj (DFL-Saint Paul) has introduced SF 1937 and Representative Kristi Pursell (DFL-Northfield) has introduced the House companion bill HF 2076. Senator Hawj is chair of the Senate Environment, Climate, and Legacy Committee and Rep. Pursell is Vice Chair of the House Agriculture Committee.

During our work to craft this bill, our coalition of environment, good government, and environmental justice groups has also considered ways to make the new version of the Board more representative of all Minnesotans and the issues we face. The simplest change we’ve recommended is naming the new body the MPCA Community Board, reflecting the fact that many residents of our state are non-citizens but are still directly impacted by the actions of the agency.

The bill includes requirements that the eight-member Community Board – appointed by the Governor – must reflect the diversity of the state in terms of race, gender, and geography. Specifically, it must include at least one enrolled member of a Tribal Nation; at least three members who live in environmental justice communities, at least one member who operates a small farm; and at least one member must be a member of a labor union.) The bill maintains the MPCA Commissioner as chair of the Board. 

Finally, as was previously in law, the bill includes requirements that the MPCA Commissioner notify the Board of activities that may be worth its examination, whether because of their broad environmental impacts or major public interest. And the agency must inform the public of Minnesotans’ rights to request for the Board to more closely examine a project.

The way forward

Like many good environmental ideas, we anticipate that the MPCA Community Board will face controversy in the Legislature. Some businesses will be none too interested in bringing the public back into major permitting decisions. They’ll claim that Minnesota’s environmental laws are already strong enough to protect our resources and public health – though our increasingly polluted lakes and rivers and increasingly warm climate might beg to differ.

We don’t think it should be controversial to include both sound science and the public voice when our state makes big environmental decisions. If a project is good for the state and won’t harm our land, air, and waters, we expect it will be readily approved by the Community Board in an open, public process. But when Minnesotans have credible, serious concerns, they will also  have the means to weigh in to protect our greater public good. As a result, the agency may find the will to use more of its discretionary power to protect our Great Outdoors, even when not expressly told to do so by law.  

If our government is truly by, for, and of the people, ordinary people must have a seat at the table. We deserve a central role in governing the protection and restoration of our state’s natural resources.

How you can help: Use this action tool from the Land Stewardship Project to contact your legislators in support of the bill.

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