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Gov. Mark Dayton signed legislation Thursday that hands the responsibility for environmental assessments to the corporations pushing the projects, drawing sharp criticism from environmentalists and giving a solid victory to the state's business community.
That put the DFL governor in the unusual position of being praised by the likes of Twin Metals Minnesota, which is undertaking a $2 billion mining operation in northeastern Minnesota, while getting skewered by the environmental groups that are a longstanding part of his party's base.
"The governor took a significant further step in improving Minnesota's business climate," said Juan Andres Morel, Twin Metals Minnesota's chief executive. Morel said the legislation "will go far in eliminating unnecessary redundancies" and create "more certain deadlines for state actions."
Environmental advocates spent Thursday morning calling for Dayton to veto the legislation that they said "rolls back" the state's environmental protections. Dayton declined to tip his hand for much of the day as a legislative clock for him to act ticked away.
But in the end the governor left little doubt about where he stood. "We agree that too many possible business expansions have been delayed unnecessarily in recent years," he wrote in announcing that he had signed the legislation.
Dayton sped up environmental permitting through executive order in January. But Republicans said the bill he signed Thursday will go further to speed the process, permitting corporations to draft environmental impact statements. The documents, often lengthy and contentious, analyze potential environmental effects of proposed mines, mills and other large industrial projects.
"I am pleased Gov. Dayton and his administration joined us in our efforts to improve the business climate and create jobs while protecting the environment and human health," said Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, the legislation's chief House author.
Steve Morse, executive director of Minnesota Environmental Partnership, called the bill "a reasonable idea gone bad."
At Thursday's news conference, Julie Jansen, an environmental activist who ran with Dayton on a losing gubernatorial ticket in 1998, criticized his action.
"Too often, the agencies are protecting the businesses and issuing permits not fully knowing or disclosing the harm," she said.
Dayton said he met with the leaders of environmental groups to hear their concerns and considered letters and Facebook messages from constituents while making up his mind.
State agencies, which currently draft the impact statements, will still review, modify and change them before they are published for public comment.
Chambers applaud decision
David Olson, president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said he was impressed that Dayton was willing to break with environmentalists. "I think that puts a stamp on the fact [of] how important he thinks this whole permitting and the whole process is to creating jobs and building the economy," Olson said.
The chamber lobbied for the impact statement language, which Olson said will streamline the process without reducing standards, since state agencies will still have the final say.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce simultaneously released a study Thursday detailing projects in Minnesota and nationwide that have been held up by "regulatory red tape and permitting delays."
"It's a great thing," Michael Belaen, a spokesman for the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, said in reacting to Dayton's decision. "We're going to be able to create jobs."
Opponents said the changes Dayton signed into law could compromise the objectivity of future reviews and limit public access.
"When you allow a proposer of a project to do their own environmental impact statement, you set up an inherent conflict of interest," said Rep. Andrew Falk, DFL-Murdock, who had asked Dayton to veto the bill.
Appeals Court reviews
Environmental groups also opposed bill provisions that send anyone appealing a review directly to the Court of Appeals and that allow the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board to finance projects before getting an environmental review.
Dayton said he had consulted with the state Court of Appeals' chief judge and been assured the court "is able to assume these additional responsibilities."
But Morse indicated environmentalists were not ready to ditch Dayton for supporting the bill. "He needs to be more pro-active to reach out to citizens and advocates so he understands these issues going forward," Morse said.
Companies currently pay the cost for having the state prepare environmental impact statements, which are written largely by third-party consultants. The companies also pay consultants to oversee the process from their end.
Before he announced his action on the bill Thursday, Dayton said his administration intends to change the way business is done in Minnesota.
"We're going to meet deadlines," he said. "We're going to be efficient. We're going to be responsive and responsible, and if not, I want to hear about it directly and somebody else will hear about it immediately after. There's no excuse for that."
Staff writer Baird Helgeson and the Associated Press contributed to this report. Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673 Eric Roper • 651-222-1210