Environmentalists decry bills advanced by Minnesota GOP lawmakers

MINNEAPOLIS — Environmentalists say Republicans who control the Minnesota Legislature and their allies are pressing a slate of bills that add up to bad news for the environment.

Those bills include one to eliminate the state Environmental Quality Board. Another would create new ways to challenge environmental regulations. Others would weaken one of Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton’s signature environmental accomplishments, a law requiring buffer strips of vegetation between farm fields and waterways to trap pollutants.

“This is the week where all the policy bills are going to get hashed out,” said Aaron Klemz, spokesman for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.

The GOP controls both the House and Senate for the first time since 2012. That’s given Republicans new opportunities for advancing legislation, and they’re hoping to use this session to push back against what they say is overregulation and governmental overreach.

Their majority in the Senate is only seat, and the governor can veto any bill he thinks goes too far.

The bill to eliminate the quality board came from the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. The board is made up of nine agency heads and five citizens. Its duties include coordinating state agencies on environmental issues and creating opportunities for the public to be involved, such as the Minnesota Environmental Congress it organized last month.

The board probably was a good idea when it was created 44 years ago but it’s now “duplicative and redundant,” said Tony Kwilas, director of environmental policy for the Chamber. State agencies give ample opportunity for public input, he said, and if a governor wants more coordination among agencies on a particular issue he can just order it.

But Klemz said the board provides a “critical function” for dealing with environmental issues across agency lines and as a place where citizens can still weigh in.

“I’ve always supported the theory that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it … and I don’t believe the Environmental Quality Board is broken at all,” Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson, who chairs the board, said at a recent hearing.

The bill on challenges to environmental rules is backed by the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities. It would allow new ways to force reviews of Minnesota Pollution Control Agency decisions. The Senate’s version would also suspend until 2019 water quality standards adopted in 2014 that require some local governments to upgrade or replace their wastewater treatment facilities.

Several measures seek to change the 2015 buffer strips law, which is unpopular among farm groups. The Department of Natural Resources has said those several measures could weaken protections for more than 48,000 miles of streams and ditches. One version already awaits a Senate floor vote.

But Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, who chairs the Senate environment policy committee, said she’s not sure what lawmakers will ultimately decide to do about buffers.

“At the end of the day it has to be something the governor will sign, and it has to be something that makes sense,” Ruud said.

Some legislation that environmentalists hoped to enact this session has already been defeated. Agricultural committees in both the House and Senate last week stripped provisions from their main policy bills that would have given the state authority to regulate seed coatings that use neonicotinoid insecticides, a proposal Dayton made last August to protect bees and other pollinators.

But some ideas that environmentalists support are making headway. Ruud is sponsoring the Senate’s main overall environmental policy bill. It includes a proposal Dayton made at the quality board congress for a nonbinding goal of improving water quality by 25 percent by 2025.

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