Should corporations study own environmental impact?

  • Article by: ERIC ROPER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 3, 2011 - 11:03 AM

A Minnesota GOP-sponsored bill would allow corporations to write their own environmental impact statements.

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Polymet Mining has been trying to build a copper-nickel mine near Babbitt, Minn. Spokeswoman LaTisha Gietzen said the proposed legislation wouldn’t change the environmental review process much.

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Corporations proposing major projects would be able to draft their own environmental reviews under a Republican-sponsored bill that awaits action by the governor.

The bill would mark a major change in the way corporations approach big projects and is spawning fierce criticism from environmental advocates, who say businesses cannot be trusted to volunteer information that might jeopardize their project.

Gov. Mark Dayton must decide on Thursday whether to sign or veto the bill.

A coalition representing 80 conservation groups will call on Dayton at a Thursday news conference to urge a veto.

Republicans who sponsored the bill say the state's lengthy permitting and review process costs the state jobs. A legislative auditor's report released on Tuesday concluded that reviews indeed often are inefficient and riddled with delays.

The handful of impact statements written every year can run 700 pages or more and cover only those proposals with the largest environmental footprints. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), which now draft such statements, would still review, modify and approve the final versions.

Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, the House freshman who sponsored the bill, said that allowing companies to write their own drafts would speed the process. Businesses, he said, "are not going to tolerate [their consultants] putting together an [environmental impact statement] that's not complete, that's not thorough."

But a coalition of 37 environmental groups countered in a letter to the Legislature that the change is akin to a "fox guarding the hen house."

Said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis: "When you have a polluter doing the study about how much pollution they're going to emit, and interpreting the standards around that, you have a conflict of interest."

Environmental impact statements, usually required of only the largest and most complex projects, are supposed to detail every potential consequence of new mines, paper mills and other massive installations.

Environmental advocates say the legislation would hand too much power to corporations, setting up inherent conflicts of interest.

Companies now pay the state for costs incurred in drafting the statements, a job done largely by third-party consultants who gather data and studies from project proposers. Bill supporters like the Iron Mining Association of Minnesota say the legislation would spare companies from having to also pay another set of consultants to follow the process.

After completion, draft impact statements are published for public comment before a final impact statement is approved and permits issued.

Dayton has already come out in support of faster permitting, beating Republicans to the punch by signing an executive order chopping the permit window to 150 days.

His MPCA commissioner previously wrote to Fabian expressing concern about an earlier version of the bill and sought language mandating that companies and agencies work together early in the environmental impact statement process.

"The company is going to be predisposed to want to put its project in the best possible light," said Craig Affeldt, who supervises environmental reviews at the MPCA. Affeldt said that if the bill becomes law, his agency will have to be more thorough detailing what needs to be included in the impact statement and then reviewing it for objectivity and completeness.

Opponents of the bill assert that it could hinder the public's ability to look at raw data for the projects through the state's Data Practices Act, since less information may end up in government hands.

LaTisha Gietzen, a spokeswoman for Polymet Mining, which has been trying to build a copper-nickel mine near Babbitt, Minn., said there would be no change. "I don't think what is shared now would be much different," Gietzen said. "Because the agencies would want to see all the data that went into it."

PolyMet has become a poster child for delays in environmental reviews. Tuesday's legislative auditor report found that state agencies spent more than 36,000 staff hours preparing PolyMet's environmental impact statement.

Environmental impact statements are not common. The report found that the state started seven environmental impact statements for private sector projects between 2006 and 2010. Many smaller projects only need to complete a less comprehensive environmental assessment worksheet.

Eric Roper • 651-222-1210

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