Environmental Review’s Latest Threat

Posted by .

It’s as predictable as the spring thaw. The Minnesota Legislature is yet again trying to weaken environmental review of large developments such as factory farms. This time around, the excuse for making the ideas in  Senate File 2761 and House File 3079 into law is “greater efficiency.” Watch out.

The arguments in favor of undermining environmental review seem to change every session. Everything from “economic competitiveness”  to “our responsibility to feed the world” has been used as a rationalization for making it so local citizens have virtually no say over having millions of gallons of liquid manure as a neighbor. And every year LSP members and other citizens make it clear they do not want environmental review weakened.

Now supporters of unbridled development are seeing if the “permitting efficiency” argument sticks. That should have a ring of familiarity to our neighbors to the east. A few years ago, siting of large-scale livestock operations in Wisconsin was greatly “streamlined” by taking away the right of local communities to have much of a say in where large-scale livestock operations were located. Relax, leave it to the state, citizens were told.

Well, for a hint as to how weakening the permitting process in the name of “efficiency” has worked in the Dairy State, check out a recent investigative series in the Wisconsin State Journal. According to the Journal‘s investigation, Wisconsin is efficiently issuing factory farm permits at a record pace, and is just as efficiently doing little follow-up to determine how all that manure is being handled. (One article in the series, “Dairy lobbyists shape policy,” provides a frightening look at what happens when one powerful group gains control over not only how environmental laws are fashioned, but how they are executed.)

The bills currently before the House (Rep. Melissa Hortman) and Senate (Sen. Linda Scheid) would be the first steps toward making Minnesota’s permitting system as “efficient” as Wisconsin’s. Here’s what they would do:

  • Set a blanket goal of 150 days for issuing all environmental permits from the time a completed permit is submitted. In many cases such a timeline is unrealistic when it comes to complicated environmental reviews of major developments, and it could result in severely shortchanging citizen input and giving full consideration to the potential environmental harm of a proposal.
  • When challenging an environmental review decision in court, citizens 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. On the other hand, factory farm lawyers will reduce their carbon footprints by not having to do all that driving to rural counties to argue their cases.
  • Tie up diminishing state agency resources with reporting and paperwork, distracting these agencies from actual environmental protection. The bills would require two reports a year from the Department of Agriculture, Pollution Control Agency and the Department of Natural Resources. Each report would have to detail how long it took to issue environmental permits, if they met the permit issuing goal of 150 days (see first bullet) and if not, why. Nothing says government efficiency like writing detailed reports on the process of “serving the public”, rather than actually getting out there and doing the job.

For more details on why this legislation is a bad idea, check out this letter signed by 23 Minnesota organizations and sent to the Senate Majority Leader and Speaker of the House. As Alan Muller recently wrote, in this case “efficiency” is a code word for “curtailing public participation.” S.F. 2761 has been sent on to the Senate Environment and Natural Resources; H.F. 3079 is in the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance Division. Contact your representatives in the Senate and House, and tell them these bills represent the kind of efficiency we can’t afford.

Comments are closed.