Suppressing a 2-Way Conversation

Sometimes one has to lose something to gain an appreciation for just how valuable an asset it was. That thought came to mind during the last hearing of the 48-year-old Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Citizens' Board, which was held June 23 in Saint Paul.

It was the last hearing because just a few weeks prior to that Minnesota lawmakers decided to eliminate this critical channel for citizens to provide input on controversial large-scale developments in the state. Pro-corporate agriculture interests such as the AgriGrowth Council had long been critical of the board's ability to provide oversight to the permitting of projects that have the potential to cause major environmental damage in rural areas.

But the last straw came in August 2014 when the Citizens' Board voted to require an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for an 8,850-cow dairy proposed for Stevens County. As we've reported in this blog previously, documentation provided by state agencies as well as local citizens made it clear this dairy posed the risk of causing irreversible damage to the water, air and general environment in the area. And because it would have been one of several mega-dairies existing in that part of the state, the Baker Dairy, as it was called, would have contributed to a major negative cumulative impact in the community. Both the potential for "irreversible damage" and "cumulative impacts" are key triggers for ordering an EIS.

The ordering of an EIS for Baker Dairy upset some powerful interests in the state, and set in motion a series of attacks on the Citizens' Board, which resulted in the Legislature eliminating it through a closed door conference committee process. (The bill containing the provision was initially vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton, but was revived during the special session.)

It was clear from the beginning that getting rid of a key forum for providing public input on all of the scientific and regulatory documentation that goes into deciding whether a permit should be issued was a bad idea. As Land Stewardship Project member Kathy DeBuhr said during a press conference outside the MPCA headquarters on June 23, "The elimination of the Citizens' Board is a really horrible, bad idea. One that should appall all Minnesota citizens—metro and rural."

DeBuhr should know—if it wasn't for the Citizens' Board, Baker Dairy and all of its millions of gallons of liquid manure would have been established within a mile of her farm. The Citizens' Board rarely overruled MPCA staff recommendations when it came to permitting projects, but when it did, it was for a good reason. For example, in 2005 the Board ordered an EIS for a proposed tire burning plant in southeastern Minnesota, a project that would have caused major air quality problems in a beautiful part of a state where family-sized farms and recreation-based businesses predominate. In another important decision, the board denied the reissuing of a permit for Excel Dairy in northwestern Minnesota after it was declared a public health nuisance.

But observing the Citizens' Board in action during a long—9 a.m. to 7 p.m.—day, made it clear that even when it doesn't overrule MPCA staff recommendations, it plays a crucial role in adding a human element to all the scientific information that goes into a permit application. It is humans, after all, that have to live next to these projects.

The Citizens' Board also added an important dose of transparency to the process—MPCA staff had to justify their recommendations in a public forum. This not only helped verify why certain decisions were made, but helped researchers from different disciplines become more aware of each other's findings, and thus any conflicts that might arise in the big picture.

Such an open method of doing business is sorely lacking in government these days.

"We always operated in a transparent process," said Citizens' Board member and southeastern Minnesota farmer Jim Riddle at the June 23 press conference. "Which is the opposite way the board was eliminated—in the dark of night by legislators serving corporate interests."

The board's transparent method of operation was on full display on June 23. On the agenda was a proposal to put in a wastewater treatment facility in the tiny community of Afton, which sits on the banks of the St. Croix River. There's a lot at stake with this proposal. The facility would be near homes in the nearby communities of Lake St. Croix Beach and St. Mary's Point, and has the potential to negatively impact everything from groundwater and a trout stream to an American Indian burial mound site called Rattlesnake Effigy.

As a result, local citizens had requested that an EIS be conducted before Afton officials were given a green light on the project. MPCA staff working on the project had recommended no EIS be conducted. But during the June 23 hearing, the seven members of the Citizens' Board present made it clear that they had a lot of questions about this proposed project.

As local citizens, citizen-experts and MPCA staff testified before the board throughout the day, they were grilled about the short term and long-term impacts of such a project, as well as possible waste disposal options. Geology, archeology, chemistry and even environmental justice issues were all gone over with a fine-toothed comb. Even big picture questions like, "Should we be encouraging development in a floodplain in the first place?" were brought up.

It became clear as the proceedings wore on that the members of this volunteer board had done their homework and were well-acquainted with every mind-numbing report, chart or test result that had been filed as part of the project proposal. (By the way, along with MPCA commissioner John Linc Stine, the board membership consisted of two farmers, a physician and others who represented various aspects of Minnesota society).

The board members seemed to serve two purposes: one was to take all that scientific jargon and translate it in a way that the general public can understand. During one part of the hearing where terms like "sand substrate" and "hydrology" were being thrown around, Jim Riddle asked an MPCA expert how long it would take sewage effluent from the proposed project's drainage field to reach the water table 36 feet below ground. The answer: about 6.5 days.

"That's pretty fast," quipped Riddle.

"Yes it is," answered the MPCA hydrologist, adding that he felt confident the sand and bacteria in the soil would clean up the effluent before it contaminated the water table.

But the board also served the role of allowing citizens potentially impacted by a proposed project to have their say. At another point during the hearing, a resident of St. Croix Beach told the board that the proposed project basically was shipping the sewage of a more affluent Afton community to the borders of his town, which is populated by more low-income residents. Such environmental justice issues are just as important to consider as whether a project has a big enough drainage field to deal with all its waste.

At the end of the day, the Citizens' Board voted 6-1 not to order an EIS for the sewage project, in effect giving it the go-ahead. Before letting them off the hook, board members did insist that MPCA staff make more of an effort to reach out to the American Indian community in Minnesota to discuss possible impacts to Rattlesnake Effigy. They also pushed them to refer to new groundwater mapping of the area that's being developed by the Minnesota Geological Survey.

The decision not to pursue an EIS was obviously a disappointment for the citizens who have expressed misgivings about this project. But, for better or worse, their concerns were given a public hearing. Now that the Citizens' Board has been eliminated, no other members of a community will have that opportunity for the foreseeable future. No matter what the final decision handed down, a society always benefits from an open, public discussion about the future impact of a major project.

"Your involvement obviously improves the process, no matter how the vote goes," the Izaak Walton League's Don Arnosti told the board after the vote.

Before the final adjournment of the almost five-decade board, several LSP members were given an opportunity to testify about what the body meant to them and how important it was to keep communication channels open between agencies like the MPCA and average citizens.

As a recent City Pages article lays out in detail, the elimination of the Citizens' Board was no anomaly—it's part of a long-term, calculated effort on the part of groups like the AgriGrowth Council to inundate the Minnesota countryside with factory farms, no matter what the cost.

That means, more than ever, farmers and other rural residents need to find a way to have their voices heard at the MPCA, DeBurh told the board members. As the crowd of farmers and other concerned citizens that stuck around for the board's last meeting attested to, they may have eliminated the Citizens' Board, but they didn't eliminate the citizens.

"The Citizens' Board as we know it has been abolished," said DeBuhr. "But it's imperative the MPCA finds a way to hear the citizens' concerns."

Or, as dairy farmer and LSP member James Kanne told the Star Tribune that day, "…we are not going away."

Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.