Report calls environmental permitting flawed, offers areas of improvementby Stephanie Hemphill, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Minnesota's legislative auditor says the state's environmental review and permitting processes are flawed, and in a report issued Tuesday offered some recommendations for improvement.
The report comes one day after the Legislature passed a bill designed to streamline permitting. Gov. Mark Dayton has also issued an executive order on the subject.
A lot of people have been frustrated that it's taken the state more than four years to conduct an environmental study on the proposed Polymet copper-nickel mine in northeastern Minnesota. That frustration led the Legislature to ask for an audit on the state's environmental review processes in general.
That audit report says there are a lot of reasons why some projects get held up: if they're very complicated, if they involve review by the federal government, if an inexperienced local government is doing the study.
Some of the suggestions the report offers for improvement are similar to requirements Dayton made in a January executive order. The Legislature also passed a bill that is supposed to streamline environmental review on Monday.
For example, all three ask the MPCA and DNR to report regularly on their performance, in order to parse out what gets in the way of quick action on permits.
The bill's chief author in the House, Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, says the report confirms the thrust of his legislation.
"We have set goals, and we have asked the agencies to let us know why we can't reach those goals," Fabian said. "I think that they're going to be able to use the recommendations of the auditor, they're going to be able to use the people in their agencies, and they're going to be able to streamline the process, and that's in essence what this is about."
But Rep. Rick Hansen, D-South St. Paul, said the Legislature put the cart before the horse in passing the streamlining bill before looking at the auditor's report.
"I see the legislation occurring before we had the analysis, and the Legislature asked for the analysis last year on a bipartisan basis, saying, 'Legislative Auditor, we trust you, give us a report.' But we couldn't wait 24 hours to actually do it," Hansen said.
The DNR's Steve Hirsch said the agency is acting on the recommendations -- such as communicating better with the public about environmental impact statements.
"For example, with some of our mining environmental impact statements we have set up websites that provide some information with the current status on the EIS," Hirsch said. "We've had trouble, once we get websites set up, having enough resources to keep them up to date. That's a big issue with our website management in general."
The DNR and the Pollution Control Agency say they're already working on some of the recommendations. But both agencies say they'll likely need to pull staff from current work in order to perform the ongoing analysis of their performance.
The report says 97 percent of applications for new or modified permits are issued within 150 days, which is the goal specified in legislation passed Monday, aimed at streamlining the process.
Both the DNR and the MPCA are expecting cuts in their general fund budgets.
- Morning Edition, 03/02/2011, 7:45 a.m.