State agency taken to task for lax oversight of wetlandsby Stephanie Hemphill, Minnesota Public Radio
A legislative committee is pushing an obscure government agency to do more to protect wetlands in Minnesota. Committee members say the Board of Water and Soil Resources isn't using money and authority it was given in the last legislative session.
St. Paul, Minn. — No one knows exactly how Minnesota is doing on protecting wetlands. One state report says at least 2,800 projects impacted wetlands in Minnesota in 2003, the last year covered in the report. But many projects are exempt from state rules, so the actual number is unknown.
The Board of Water and Soil Resources -- more commonly known by its acronym, BWSR, is supposed to help local governments conserve land and water resources.
Last spring the Legislature updated the Wetlands Conservation Act, which passed originally in 1991. It gave BWSR (pronounced BOW-zer) $250,000 to beef up its enforcement efforts. It also gave the agency the power to issue "administrative penalty orders."
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency often issues these orders to get companies to obey laws without having to go to court.
Rep. Jean Wagenius is chair of the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance Division. She says, in effect, BWSR has neither bark nor bite, when it comes to protecting wetlands.
Wagenius scolded Dave Weirens, BWSR's Land and Water section manager, for not being ready to use administrative penalty orders.
"You've had this authority or knew you were going to have this authority since we were out of session" in May, Wagenius said. "And it mirrors MPCA. They have been using this authority for many, many years. All the bugs have been worked out. I'm disappointed to hear that you haven't had a sit-down training with PCA to see how they are using the authority."
Wagenius said the DNR is poised to use airplanes starting in the next week or so to find filled-in wetlands, and the DNR needs BWSR to help enforce the law.
"So the DNR is up to snuff, but it doesn't seem that you're ready to respond to their work," Wagenius said.
"Madam Chairman, I disagree with your assessment," Weirens responded.
"We've had some other activities going on that have taken a lot of our time with the course of the summer months," Weirens continued. "In fact, I am having my first meeting with PCA staff beginning of next week, to understand what they do and how they do it, and that has to be the first step."
Weirens said the board has to figure out how to use this new authority. BWSR is a small agency, with only about 70 staffers, and it's lost a couple of key people in recent months.
Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, also chided Weirens for BWSR's slow response.
Hansen said it took nearly two years to rewrite the Wetland Conservation Act, and the Board of Water and Soil Resources should have been well aware of the measures it included. "We were very deliberate in what we wrote into law, and we've been communicating fairly clearly here that if there is enforcement and compliance that it's relatively swift, and it's fair and it's professional, and we wanted to make sure that was happening," said Hansen.
"We've given you some tools here, and we've communicated that we've given you tools, and we'd like those tools to be used," Hansen continued. "We've provided you with staff. Have you hired the staff, do you have vacancies?"
"We are in the process of hiring the additional staff in relating to the additional money," Weirens responded. "We expect in the next two months to have four new positions to be filled, and we do anticipate that's going to help us tremendously."
Weirens said he'd be able to report more progress at another committee hearing in early November.
The Department of Natural Resources is in the second year of a three year study to measure wetlands loss.
- All Things Considered, 10/03/2007, 5:55 p.m.