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Minnesota Legislature: Environment, outdoors issues up for debate

ST. PAUL -- Nuclear power. Mining. Regulations. Duck season.

Those and more issues will be debated in Minnesota legislative environmental committees run by Republicans during the session that begins Tuesday.

The House and Senate committees likely will feature less tree hugging and more business hugging than those run by Democrats in the past.

"We are going to discuss some things that they didn't discuss," said Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings.

As chairman of the House Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Committee, McNamara promises a quick start.

Committees are likely to pass a bill lifting a moratorium on building new nuclear power plants. However, no company has said it wants to build a new one, leaving those in Red Wing and Monticello the only two for some time.

Senators passed a weak moratorium-lifting bill last session, but the House blocked it.

One aspect needed in a bill, McNamara said, is finding a way to fund storage, especially important now that it appears Yucca Mountain in Nevada will not be the storage area for nuclear waste.

Storing used nuclear materials, such as done at Minnesota's two plants, bothers environmentalists who say it is dangerous.

Because the debate already has been heard many times, a nuclear moratorium bill "could happen earlier rather than later," McNamara said.

Environmental groups will watch to make sure that 2008's vote to dedicate a sales tax increase to outdoors programs is followed.

"Voters passed this constitutional amendment to ensure that we would have the funds to do more than we had been doing to protect and clean up our lakes, rivers, streams and great outdoors," said Executive Director Steve Morse of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership. "This money should be used as voters intended: to expand and enhance these efforts. We will be vigilant in our efforts to protect these dedicated funds from raids."

Morse, whose group represents 80 conservation and environmental organizations, said that despite the state's budget problems, polling indicates "that voters strongly support environmental protections."

The Legislature's environmental committees will look into what, if anything, should be done to prevent sulfates and other toxins from leeching into native wild rice beds. With a half-dozen companies looking into opening copper and nickel mines in northeast Minnesota, where there already are taconite mines, the issue has become a hot-button topic.

A sulfate standard has not been enforced since 1975, McNamara said, and the Legislature may want to get involved to protect the environment while allowing job-providing mining to expand.

McNamara called the new copper and nickel mines "a terrific economic opportunity (with) a future in northeast Minnesota."

One requirement the House chairman sees as needed in any mining bill is that a mining company set aside enough money to repair any environmental damage its mines may do.

"Clean-up of toxic mining pollution can take many decades," Morse said. "We shouldn't burden taxpayers with those costs."

The new Republican legislative leadership and Democratic Gov.-elect Mark Dayton agree on the need to make regulations less intrusive to businesses.

McNamara said that should help his goal of limiting how much time it takes to get various environmental-related permits.

"I anticipate that is going to come out of the chute strongly," he said.

An example McNamara gave of how permit delays hurt business is that Iowa gets most of the new ethanol plants in a large part because it presents businesses with less red tape.

While speeding up state permitting, McNamara said, the state must remain strong in protecting the environment. "We want Minnesota to lead in that stuff."

Being environmentally friendly will keep Minnesota a more expensive place to do business, McNamara said, but it is worth the price.

Game and fish issues also will be debated in 2011.

McNamara said he will bring up some issues he has opposed in the past because they need discussion. Such issues include allowing scopes on muzzle-loader rifles, regulating fishing with two lines and changing the duck-hunting season.

Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.