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Environment issues to get closer look in Minnesota

Gov. Mark Dayton

Minnesota is taking a closer look at its environmental problems, issues and laws in coming weeks under an order from Gov. Mark Dayton.

While it's captured little public attention, Dayton initiated the effort one year ago with an executive order to the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board to organize the Minnesota Environmental Congress as the board itself reconsiders its future.

The Congress kicks off in coming weeks with six regional meetings across the state, including Wednesday in Duluth, which will be followed by a statewide environmental convention in March. The governor's order says the state agency leaders must use public input from the regional and state meetings to plan a "blueprint for Minnesota's environmental future."

"We are hoping to hear from as many Minnesotans as possible about the current state of the environment and how it affects the quality of life here," said Ellen Anderson, a former state senator and now a special adviser to the governor on environmental issues. "We want to take a look at how Minnesota is doing in environmental protection and governance and then have people help us make up a blueprint for where the state goes in the future with regard to environmental policy on air, water, land use, climate and energy."

The EQB is made up of five citizen members and the leaders of nine state agencies: Administration, Agriculture, Transportation, Natural Resources, Pollution Control, Commerce, Economic Development, Health and the Board of Water and Soil Resources. The board was supposed to be holding these Environmental Congress sessions on a regular basis. But the last one was in 1994. Since then, governors have de-emphasized the role of the EQB in state environmental review and policy, cutting staff and starving the agency of money, Anderson said.

Dayton's order from last year also forced the EQB to take a look at its mission under state statutes and report back to him on if and how the agency should change.

Last week the EQB board sent suggestions to the governor suggesting that the agency's staff be rebuilt and its role resumed to the level it enjoyed in the 1970s and 1980s, when it was a focal point of Minnesota environmental policy on big issues.

"Part of it is a return to what the EQB was intended to do when it was created back in the '70s, to take a holistic approach to these big issues that really cross several agencies' jurisdictions," Anderson said, pointing to frac-sand mining proposals now surfacing in southern Minnesota as an example of a big issue that faces multiple state and local interests. "The other big recommendation is that the EQB become the public's portal to all kinds of environmental issues, legislation, permitting and environmental review that's going on, that the EQB become the public's source for environmental information in Minnesota."

Dayton's executive order directs the EQB to hold an annual Environmental Congress to measure Minnesota's environmental pulse. Specifically, the Congress has been asked to:

Assess Minnesota's progress toward improving and sustaining clean air, clean water and clean energy in our communities.

Engage Minnesotans in constructive public dialogue about our state's environmental and economic health.

Identify environmental challenges and opportunities to improve and sustain the health of Minnesota's natural resources and quality of life.

r Define a vision and recommend specific policy changes to learn from our past, build on our strengths and leave a legacy for future generations of Minnesotans.

Some environmental activists say the governor's order may have been intended to help offset separate moves by the governor and Legislature to hurry up environmental review and permitting in the state to aid business proposals. Several groups are informing their members to attend the regional meetings, and business groups representing mining and logging are expected to be well represented as well. Environment Minnesota, for example, is telling its members that it's a rare opportunity for citizens to have the ear of so many state agency commissioners on important issues.

Andrew Slade, Northeastern Minnesota coordinator for the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, a coalition of 75 environmental groups from across the state, said it's not clear how the Congress will unfold.

"No one really knows what to expect out of this. The agenda is really a blank slate. It's wide open," Slade said. "Our Great Lakes groups are going to be looking at invasive species and ballast water (regulations). Obviously (copper) mining is going to be a big, big topic. ... Statewide, the frac-sand mining thing is getting very big. There are a lot of issues people feel strongly about."