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Legislative Audit Commission Meeting

Minutes

March 1, 2011

Members Present:

Representative Michael Beard Senator Mike Parry
Representative Sondra Erickson    Senator Roger Reinert
Representative Rick Hansen Senator Ann H. Rest
Representative Mary Liz Holberg Senator Claire Robling
Representative Phyllis Kahn
Representative Steve Simon

Members Absent:

Senator David Hann
Senator James Metzen

Other Members:

Representative Dan Fabian

Representative Michael Beard, Chair, called the Legislative Audit Commission (LAC) meeting to order at 3:01 p.m. Representative Beard said the purpose of the meeting was to release the evaluation, Environmental Review and Permitting.

Representative Beard introduced Jim Nobles, Legislative Auditor. Mr. Nobles said that the Office of the Legislative Auditor (OLA) was directed to evaluate environmental review and permitting processes. He said that the 2010 Legislature heard criticisms that the processes are very time consuming and costly for businesses that propose projects. Mr. Nobles introduced Jody Hauer, manager for the Environmental Review and Permitting evaluation. Ms. Hauer said that the purpose of environmental reviews is to understand the impact a project will have on the environment. Environmental reviews meet two of the five objectives laid out in state rules. Certain local governments acknowledged that their lack of experience and expertise hampered them in the environmental review process. Ms. Hauer said the recommendations in the evaluation include strengthening the environmental review process; strengthening local governments’ ability to conduct environmental reviews; and changing the environmental assessment worksheet (EAW) process by allowing certain low-risk projects to bypass the EAW on a trial basis. Ms. Hauer said that both the Pollution Control Agency (PCA) and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) lack adequate data to measure timeliness. The evaluation found that timelines varied greatly and reflected individual project circumstances. Additional recommendations proposed by the evaluation include that PCA and DNR should 1) improve their data’s value by routinely compiling timeliness information; 2) set explicit timeliness standards; and 3) consistently inform proposers of what is needed to complete EAWs, timeliness standards, and agency expectations of proposers.

Representative Beard asked Bob Patton, Executive Director of the Environmental Quality Board (EQB), to come forward. Mr. Patton said he was pleased to present to the commission. He said he was representing the staff of the EQB, not the board itself. Mr. Patton said that the environmental review information contained in the evaluation was very thorough and a good foundation for further discussions on the environmental review and permitting processes. Mr. Patton suggested instead of allowing low-risk projects to bypass the EAW process, the board should reexamine the thresholds for mandatory EAWs. He said that he agreed that local government inexperience with environmental review should be addressed but thinks identifying preferred service providers would be better than modifying the process for redesignating responsible governmental units.

Representative Beard welcomed Jeff Smith, Director, Industrial Division of Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), to address the commission. Mr. Smith commented on OLA’s professional efforts on the evaluation. He said that the MPCA has now implemented a permitting database that was activated only two weeks previously. Mr. Smith said that MPCA does in fact provide permits in a timely manner, which, as the report points out, means that 93 percent of the permit applications are issued within six months. The ones that take longer are the priority permits, which are for complex projects that necessarily require more time.

Representative Beard called representatives from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to address the commission: Mary McConnell, Assistant Commissioner, and Steve Hirsch, Director of EcoWaters. Ms. McConnell thanked the OLA for its work on the evaluation. She said DNR is committed to ensuring that the environmental review and permitting processes are done effectively and efficiently. She said DNR only partially agrees with allowing low-risk projects to bypass the EAW process and that they would review the categories of routine projects where this process may be curtailed. Mr. Hirsch explained that most of the funding for the environmental review process at DNR does not come from the General Fund. However, he noted that the General Fund is the source of much funding for water permits.

Representative Beard thanked OLA staff for their work on the evaluation. With no further business, he adjourned the meeting at 4:28 p.m.

_______________________________________
Representative Michael Beard, Chair

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Shelly Watterud, Recording Secretary

 

Office of the Legislative Auditor ♦ Room 140, 658 Cedar St., St. Paul, MN 55155