Excel Dairy (www.mprnews.org).
by Steve Timmer
Feb 12, 2024, 8:30 PM

It’s time to revive the Pollution Control Agency’s Citizen’s Board

In the spring of 2016, in a late night act of special session log rolling, the Minnesota Legislature assassinated the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s Citizen’s Board. The Board had been a target of industrial polluters — and those who would like to be — for a long time. The Citizens’ Board had recently nixed a large and environmentally dangerous expansion of the Excel Dairy. The environment and the citizens of the state have been poorer for this decision to eliminate the Citizens’ Board.

It’s time to bring it back: this second session of the DFL trifecta is the perfect time.

As the linked MPR story says, the Citizens’ Board existed for nearly fifty years before it was axed. It wasn’t axed after a through committee hearing process all session long. It was knifed — to mix a metaphor — in the dark, in a special session. Shameful. That’s how these things happen, though.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Citizens’ Board was once one of the state’s most powerful citizen bodies — the decision-making panel for the agency protecting Minnesota’s air and water.

Next week, though, it will be gone, the victim of a legislative deal reached during last week’s special session.

Most state lawmakers saw no compelling reason to keep the board. While some DFL senators put up a fight for it during the special session, GOP lawmakers argued the group, which fought pollution issues for nearly 50 years, was no longer useful and slowed down the process.

The people who sat on the Citizens’ Board were not just people off the street. They were credentialed scientists and people knowledgeable about environmental law. That’s what made them so annoying to the polluters and the would-be’s. Not to mention the industry-captured Pollution Control Agency itself.

Multiple missteps by the PCA over the last few years might have been avoided by a group of informed and savvy citizens sitting on board within the agency and asking the staffers: What’s going on here? A couple of them come readily to mind.

In 2018, at the end of his term, Jon Linc Stine, then Commissioner of the PCA, issued a water pollution discharge permit to PolyMet Mining based on flimsy science at best and lacking any numeric standards (WQBELS) by which compliance with the permit could be measured, by either the agency or the environmental nonprofits. In any lawsuit by the nonprofits, PolyMet could have defended on the basis of the “permit shield,” saying that it was in compliance with the toothless permit. The PCA would have been PolyMet’s defender, not its regulator.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was eerily silent on the permit before it was issued. A Citizens’ Board might have asked: Why no EPA input? They might have found out sooner rather than later that it was because the Minnesota PCA asked the Trump EPA to keep its mouth shut. Instead, it took a courageous EPA insider to blow the whistle on the deficient and worthless permit, and five years of litigation to get rid it. The linked story was just a station of the cross on that five year litigation journey which ended last year when the Supreme Court of Minnesota finally scotched the permit. It was a clear case of corruption that took five years to fix.

Or consider the case of Smith Foundry, which has been polluting its south Minneapolis neighborhood for years and required the intervention of the Biden EPA (and the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy) to hector the PCA into taking action. A not-industry-captured group of citizens with oversight of the PCA would have been valuable here, too.

There are many more examples I could cite.

The good news is that a bill was introduced in both houses of the Legislature last session to resurrect the Citizens’ Board. Here’s the House version; it has 23 authors. The session that started today is supposed to be a “policy” session, so it’s a perfect opportunity to advance this really good policy idea.

The initiative to bring the Citizens’ Board back was discussed in a recent Zoom presentation by the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. I’m sure it’s on their radar for the session.

Thanks for your feedback. If we like what you have to say, it may appear in a future post of reader reactions.