Why do Minnesotans put up with this?

On June 23rd, the MPCA “Citizens’ Board” held its last meeting, the board having been abolished by the Minnesota Legislature with the consent of Governor Mark Dayton.

Some very smart, well-informed people must have written the environmental laws of Minnesota in the 1960s and 1970s.  The Citizens’ Board seems to have been designed to keep the MPCA from becoming overly bureaucratic, self-serving, and too closely tied to the interests it was supposed to regulate.  These, of course, are the normal evolutionary tendencies of a regulatory agency, kept down only by constant effort.  No wonder the Chamber and “big-ag,” etc, wanted the Citizens’ Board gone.

Back to the June 23rd meeting, in the basement boardroom of the MPCA, beginning at 9:00 am and ending about 6:30 pm. What I observed, having been there all day, seemed rather different from the media reports I have seen.  No need, however, to take my word for anything.  You can see many of the documents and watch video of the meeting here.

One substantive matter was on the agenda:  A sewer project, really a big community septic system, proposed by the City of Afton.  It was opposed by two other neighboring Minnesota cities, Lake St. Croix Beach and St. Mary’s Point, a couple of non-profit organizations, and many individual citizens.  They had asked for an Environmental Impact Statement to be prepared, and for a “Contested Case.”  The objectors were well represented by lawyers, technical consultants, elected officials, and citizens.

First we heard a couple of hours of commentary from MPCA staff, systematically dissing the concerns and asserting that the proposed project was fine, met all the rules, and did not need or deserve an EIS or a Contested Case.  Then the Mayor of Afton, Richard Bend, went on for over an hour.  He said, at great length, that Afton has a long tradition of contaminating ground and surface waters with sewage and needed to correct the problems.  Nobody disagreed with that.

Finally, hours later, the citizens who had brought their issues before the “Citizens’ Board” were allowed to speak.  (Why don’t (didn’t) those bringing a matter to the Citizens’ Board get to go first and present their case???)  By then, of course, most of the cameras and most of the reporters were gone.  They had a lot to say:  That the three neighboring cities had similar problems but were not cooperating to solve them.  That the PCA had the power to order the three cities to cooperate but had not chosen to do so.  That the Afton sewage, in amounts of up to 50 thousand gallons per day, would, after limited treatment, be dumped into highly permeable soils near the boundaries of Afton, and near drinking water wells, of unknown depth and integrity, in neighborhoods not in Afton.  That these communities were not being offered sewer or water service.  That people were concerned that the septic drain fields were near Valley Creek (Bolles Creek), one of the few functioning trout streams in the Metro area.  That people were being subjected to environmental injustice.  That sacred Indian sites, including burial mounds, would be disturbed. And more….And more….

Many members of the Citizen’ Board are (were) accomplished people.  Several have doctorates.  A couple have been on the Board for decades.  They asked many thoughful and penetrating questions.  Then, they voted, with the exception of Pakou Hang, to wield the rubber stamp, to deny an EIS, to deny a Contested Case, and to grant the permits.  The Board could have made its last decision with its collective head held high, having done the right thing, but chose not to.

The real deal:  The Citizens’ Board started out electing its own Chair, functioning with some independence.  This ended during the term of “business friendly” Governor Arne Carlson.  The Commissioner of the MPCA took over control of the Board.  Read more in this MinnPost piece, “How the MPCA’s Citizens’ Board did itself in,” by Doug Grow:

 Grant Merritt, who was the second director of the MPCA, said part of the reason there’s not a greater uproar surrounding Dayton’s apparent decision to let the board die is that the board’s structure has long since been changed — and weakened. Under Gov. Arne Carlson, a business-friendly MPCA commissioner, Charlie Williams,  worked with the Legislature to limit the power of the board in a number of ways, including making the MPCA commissioner the chairman of the board.

“Originally,” Merritt said, “the board elected its own chairman. It was created to be the policy-making body of the agency. The original structure was brilliant. Sen. Gordon Rosenmeier (who caucused as a conservative) had it structured so that the hot environmental issues of the day came through the board. That hasn’t happened since Carlson made the changes.”

Rather than being at the head of the line in the process, the board ended up at the back. It was to approve — and on rare occasions  reject — recommendations made by MPCA staff.

The present Commissioner, John Linc Stine, is a consummate bureaucrat.  He orchestrates the testimony of his staff, cutting short ineffectual or damaging testimony and otherwise shifting course as needed.  He similarly manipulates the board, dragging matters out as needed to wear down doubters, shifting the discussion to safer ground when things get uncomfortable.  He’s shameless about asking citizens to take only a couple of minutes after technical staff and applicants have babbled on for hours.

It’s a farce.  It’s more or less the equivalent of a courtroom where the prosecutor is also the judge.

Defenders of the Citizens’ Board say some purpose is (was) served because the staff is (was) at least required to prepare a public defense of its position, and because every few years the Board would, perhaps, side for once with the citizens it is named after but rarely represents effectively.   This was likely better than nothing, but not much.  There is no real point in campaigning for recreation of the Citizens’ Board without restoring it to a semblance of what it was before Arne Carlson got at it.

Lets close with words of wisdom from Rep. Denny McNamara, Chair of the House environment committee–and an anti-environmental crusader–

“We didn’t need it anymore,” said Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings. “We have good environmental laws in place, (and) the agency does a good job.”

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