Following a tense day of hearings over a proposed Afton wastewater treatment plant, the Citizens' Board of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency made its last vote, eliminating itself after 48 years of oversight of the state's environmental agency.

The decision was ordered by the Legislature earlier this month in a surprise move following the Citizens' Board's challenge of a massive dairy operation proposed for west-central Minnesota.

Board members expressed disappointment and sadness with the decision, saying they had fulfilled an important mandate for residents as they exercised broad authority over the Pollution Control Agency on everything from proposed tire-burning plants to local infrastructure issues like the one debated Tuesday.

"The elimination of our Citizens' Board should be an affront to our democratic values in Minnesota, and the irony is that it was decided in the closed conference committee by a few people under duress, the very definition of undemocratic means," said Board Member Pakou Hang, who gave an emotional address shortly before the board's final vote.

The board of eight unpaid citizens, appointed by the governor and chaired by MPCA commissioner John Linc Stine, had veto power over the agency's decisions. That unusual power was cited earlier this year by House Speaker Kurt Daudt as the reason for its demise.

Supporters of the board have framed the action differently, saying special interests had effectively killed the board because it stood in their way.

"It's a disgraceful decision, absolutely un-Minnesotan," said Don Arnosti, conservation program director of the Minnesota chapter of the Izaak Walton League.

About 100 people, including former Gov. Wendell Anderson and several state senators and representatives, rallied Tuesday morning on the steps of the PCA in St. Paul to decry the board's death.

Some waved signs reading "We won't be silenced" and "Citizen Voices Are Important" as several speakers came forward.

Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, chair of the energy and environment committee, called for the board's restoration while speaking to protesters. "This is not a bureaucracy," he said. "This is a board for the citizens who are fed up with the bureaucrats, who need someone who will listen to them."

Last day

The board's only official business Tuesday concerned a proposed wastewater treatment plan for the village of Afton on the St. Croix River. The plant would treat the wastewater of 70 houses on 25 acres on the north end of town, near homes in Lake St. Croix Beach and St. Mary's Point.

Numerous people spoke against the plan, citing potential damage to the drinking water of neighboring towns, the historic and cultural significance of the area, and the environmental concerns of a group recently formed to protect Valley Creek. They asked the Citizens' Board to order an environmental-impact statement (EIS) on the plan.

MPCA staff earlier had greenlighted the project.

"Your value as a board will be greatly missed," said Lake St. Croix Beach Council Member Jim Unker. He asked the board to require an EIS.

After a full day of public comment and board discussion, the board denied the EIS request by a vote of 6-1.

Fateful challenge

The board's demise was tied to a farmer's complaint about a 9,000-cow mega-dairy proposed for land near her farm. Kathy DeBuhr of Chokio, Minn., said she first learned of the dairy just 15 months ago. Acting on her behalf, and others who opposed the dairy farm, the Citizens' Board last summer challenged the $55 million project proposed by Riverview Farms LLC, a Minnesota company that controls tens of thousands of cows at several locations around the state.

MPCA staff recommended that the project go ahead. Neighbors like DeBuhr, however, pushed the Citizens' Board to order a more thorough review over water use and manure issues. The board ordered the review, but Riverview Farms instead canceled the project and expanded its operations at other locations where it already held MPCA permits.

The confrontation raised the Citizens' Board's profile, with both agribusiness and some state senators chiding the board for interfering with the state's business community.

It wasn't until the final day of the legislative session, however, that a proposal to kill the board emerged from conference committee. It passed in a larger agriculture and environment bill, with Dayton saying he did not support the board's elimination but agreed to it in order to avoid a state shutdown.

The board's longest serving member, Daniel D. Foley, said the Legislature was wrong.

"The board as an institution has been very beneficial for the citizens of the state of Minnesota, particularly to provide as you see today, an open, plain-language forum for discussion of complex environmental issues. And that will be lost." Foley, a medical doctor, has served on the board for some 30 years. He said he doubts it will return anytime soon.

"We are not an enemy of business, but we're not an advocate of business. We vote based on the rule of law, not our personal will and desires. I think most of us were appointed by the governor and reappointed because we showed common sense backgrounds that can understand the complex interplay and the gravity of the decisions that we've made."

Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329