The Legislature’s upcoming special session will likely see the end of an era in Minnesota, with lawmakers poised to abolish a citizens’ board that for decades has wielded broad power over some of the state’s most important environmental decisions.
An unusual fixture in state governance, the board of eight unpaid citizens appointed by the governor has presided over the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency since its creation in the 1960s. The structure was designed to protect the public against the power of special interests in setting environmental agendas.
And in the end, it was special interests that played a leading role in its demise.
The showdown began when the Citizens’ Board challenged a huge dairy feedlot proposed for west-central Minnesota last summer, which triggered a concerted campaign by the state’s farm lobby to dilute the board’s power.
“Certain folks in the business community, the polluters, don’t want anyone to step in their way,” said a frustrated Sen. John Marty, one of many DFLers who voted against an agriculture and environment bill containing the provision.
DFL Gov. Mark Dayton wound up vetoing the bill after the regular session adjourned.
In closed-door negotiations with Republicans since then, Dayton has won some concessions — including his signature buffer-strip proposal — but he said the Citizens’ Board is a sacrifice he’ll make to avoid a government shutdown.
House Speaker Kurt Daudt said the board was targeted because it’s the only nonelected, appointed board that can veto agency policies or projects.
“Frankly, having a board of appointed citizens, who aren’t always experts in these issue areas, having the ability to overrule the department has been problematic,” said Daudt, R-Crown. “It’s a reform we think is important for that reason.”
9,000-cow project overruled
Yet others see it as a sad ending to a rare forum for people who have to live with the state’s decisions on the environmental consequences of development.
“It’s a huge loss for democracy if this goes through,” said James Riddle, a member of the current Citizens’ Board.
While regulatory reviews often include an opportunity for public comment, the Citizens’ Board is unusual because it has the power to overrule agency staff, which it did from time to time.
Including last summer, in a decision that contributed to its undoing.
The project was a $55 million, 9,000-cow dairy feedlot near Chokio by Riverview Farms LLC, a Minnesota company that controls nearly 50,000 cows at seven operations in the state.
MPCA staff had conducted a standard environmental review of the project and recommended that it go forward. But the Citizens’ Board meeting to review it was packed with local citizens who raised questions about the project’s impact, and pointed out that the staff review had several holes.
Riddle said the review lacked information on the impact to a local aquifer from the dairy operation, which would need 135 million gallons of water annually. Nor did it contain agreements from enough local farmers willing to take the feedlot’s substantial manure output for use as fertilizer, he said.
When the board insisted on a far broader environmental review, Riverview canceled the project and instead expanded operations where it already held MPCA permits.
Agriculture interests react
The decision stunned agribusiness interests in the state, which launched a campaign to somehow diminish the board’s power.
Perry Aasness, executive director of the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council, said the Riverview Dairy decision proved the board could block a project that met all government requirements. He said that kind of surprise and uncertainty hurts the state’s reputation at a time when Minnesota is competing for agriculture businesses.
“Minnesota always needs to look at its business climate,” he said.
The plan found a friendly reception at the Rural Task Force, a legislative group formed by Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, an Iron Range DFLer, to promote the interests of rural Minnesota communities.
At a hearing in November, Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, zeroed in on the board, according to an account in the Capitol Report published by the St. Paul Legal Ledger, one of the few records of the meeting.
The board, she said, had a tremendous amount of power. “I’m concerned about what we’ve unleashed,” she said.
In January, Marty conducted a second hearing to air opposing views, where Kathy DeBuhr, whose family farmed a mile from the proposed dairy, testified.
She said the MPCA estimated that the amount of hydrogen sulfide gas produced by the operation would have hovered just below the state’s legal health standard, a serious concern for a neighbor child who has asthma, she said.
“The Citizens’ Board is important to protect your environment, my environment and my home,” she said.
An 11th-hour surprise
Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, proposed a bill that would have changed the board’s powers and composition, though he said it had nothing to do with the Riverview Dairy decision.
But he said he was as surprised as many other legislators when, on the last day of the session, a new bill emerged from conference committee that would eliminate the board altogether. It was rolled into the much-broader agriculture and environment bill that was approved on the last day of the session after acrimonious debate on the floor of both chambers.
Some DLFers say it was one of several infuriating decisions produced in backroom deal-making between Republicans and a few leading DFLers who have similar views on environmental issues, including powerful Iron Range legislators who have chafed at state regulation of the mining industry.
“It was basically a handful of Democrats and Republicans who passed this bill,” said Marty.
“The pieces fit,” said Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, the lobbying group for the state’s environmental nonprofits. “It looks to me like an ag and mining coalition.”
Staff writer Patrick Condon contributed to this report.