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Governor signs bill speeding up permits

Rep. John Persell of Bemidji on Thursday said that Gov. Mark Dayton did the right thing when he ordered environmental permits to be issued quicker, but a Legislature-passed bill went too far. Pioneer Photo/Don Davis

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota's environmental permitting process soon will speed up, with a goal of producing more jobs.

Gov. Mark Dayton signed a permit speed-up bill Thursday, following up on an earlier executive order he wrote to do many of the same things.

"We're sending a signal that we want your projects done quicker," Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, said about the new law's message to business. "And we want to save you money in the process, because time is money."

He credited lawmakers from both parties and Gov. Dayton for working together to settle differences. And he emphasized that he believes the environment is still protected.

"I'm not interested in turning a bunch of polluters loose," he said

Fabian, the House author of the Republican priority measure, said it will help businesses while still protecting the environment.

"Jobs are our top priority," added House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove. "We need to remove obstacles in state government to provide more certainty and efficiency in a complex permitting process. Our economic recovery is bolstered by this reasonable regulatory reform."

In a letter to Fabian and Senate author Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, Democrat Dayton said he agrees with them that there have been too many delays.

The state Pollution Control Agency and Department of Natural Resources issue most permits. Dayton said he is ordering those agencies to "implement whatever measures are necessary to assure that neither the quality nor the integrity of ensuring environmental impact statements" are compromises.

The bill was designed to speed the environmental permitting process that businesses often need for doing things such as discharging waste water. Republicans and Dayton agree that the process often takes too long.

The bill echoed a Dayton executive order setting a 150-day goal on issuing permits. But the bill went further, allowing the company applying for a permit to hire its own people to study the environmental impacts.

Before Dayton announced his decision, environmental groups gathered to urge him to veto the measure.

"This is a classic example of a decent idea gone bad," said Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership.

Julie Jansen of Olivia recalled the 1990s when fumes from nearby hog farms made her family seriously ill. She said a provision in the bill to allow the company seeking an environmental permit to conduct its own study could cause more such problems.

Even government agencies too often side with businesses, she said, and the bill's provisions would make it worse.

Sen. Gary Kubly, DFL-Granite Falls, said that if governments continue to control the environmental impact studies the data will be public. But businesses paying for their own studies could hide the data, he added.

A provision to send all environmental permit appeals directly to the St. Paul-based Appeals Court would mean only the wealthy could afford to challenge a permitting decision, Jansen said. She said an Olivia family she helped in an environmental case spent $7,000 to appeal a lower court decision.

Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, also complained about the Appeals Court provision.

"They are taking away local control," he said.

Rep. Andrew Falk, DFL-Murdock, said Republicans had the votes to pass the permitting bill all along, but they should have given the public time to testify about the measure.

"If you have the votes, you can pass things through," he said, "but that doesn't lead to good government."

Former taconite miner Bob Tammen of Soudan said he feared the bill would threaten wetlands because Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board-funded projects could get by without proper environmental studies.

"We would like them to honor their existing mandate and clean up" environmental problems, Tammen said.

He said the permitting speed-up measure would be a "threat to America's clean water."

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer. Twin Cities freelance writer Andrew Tellijohn contributed to this story.