Legislation to Reinstate MPCA Citizens’ Board gets 2nd Hearing in MN House March 7

Legislation to Reinstate MPCA Citizens’ Board gets 2nd Hearing in MN House March 7

SAINT PAUL, Minn. — A bill to reinstate a key body for allowing Minnesota citizens to have a say in the future of their communities’ environmental health will be considered during a legislative hearing on Thursday, March 7. The House Government Operations Committee will consider the reinstatement of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s (MPCA) Citizens’ Board, beginning at 9:45 a.m., in Room 5 of the Minnesota State Office Building in Saint Paul. Legislation to reinstate the Board was introduced earlier this session by Rep. John Persell (DFL-Bemidji), who is the Chair of the House Environment and Natural Resources Policy Committee, and Sen. John Marty (DFL-Roseville). The bills are House File 973 and Senate File 627, respectively. House File 973 was passed last week in the House Environment and Natural Resources Policy Committee.

During the last hours of the 2015 Minnesota legislative session, the 48-year-old Citizens’ Board was abolished without a single hearing in the Minnesota Legislature. Land Stewardship Project (LSP) member Jim Riddle of Winona, Minn., who was a member of the Citizens’ Board when it was eliminated, plans to make the trip from his farm March 7 to let legislators know that rural people want the Board back.

“The MPCA Citizens Board is critical to having accountability in our government,” said Riddle. “The Board created a space for democracy in action — where every voice can be heard, in full daylight, to protect Minnesota’s environment and ensure our laws and regulations are being followed.”

The Citizens’ Board was established in 1967 with the creation of the MPCA to ensure the agency serves the public interest and to establish an open and transparent decision-making process. The legislation to abolish the Citizens’ Board was among the most controversial of the 2015 legislative session. The language was inserted into the Agriculture and Environment Budget Bill by the conference committee chairs in the last hours of the regular 2015 session, thus avoiding meaningful public hearings.

Also making the trip March 7 to testify in support of the reinstatement bill is LSP member and hog farmer Dayna Burtness of Spring Grove, Minn. As a local leader, Burtness organized to protect her community’s quality of life, air, water, and local economy from a 4,980-head factory hog farm proposed in her community by Catalpa Ag. As proposed, the operation would have generated 7.3 million gallons of liquid manure and used 8.8 million gallons of the area’s groundwater annually. It was proposed to be built in Minnesota’s vulnerable karst area, which is composed of porous limestone that creates sinkholes and disappearing springs. This geology can allow surface pollution to enter the groundwater in a matter of hours. As a result, this part of the state has long had problems with groundwater pollution.

Despite ample scientific evidence that the operation would pose a significant threat to the area, on Dec. 18 then-MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine announced his decision not to order an in-depth Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project. The MPCA denied the proposer’s application for a general National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit, but indicated that the company may still apply for a customized permit, known as an "individual permit."

Since then, the proposer applied for an NPDES permit, but withdrew the application. Members of the impacted rural community were cut out of the process by the Commissioner’s decision and there is no official record to verify the denial of the permit. The public process used by the Citizens’ Board would have prevented this kind of behind-the-scenes decision-making, according to Burtness.

"Instead of the transparent and open process of the MPCA Citizens Board, MPCA staff made decisions about this gigantic factory farm behind closed doors and off the record,” said Burtness, “We still have no clarity about whether the Catalpa Ag general permit was denied and that's unacceptable. Minnesotans and rural communities value democracy and open government and deserve better. We want our Citizens’ Board back."