REGIONAL— A last-minute provision that would have exempted future copper-nickel mines in northeastern Minnesota from state solid waste rules was just one of more than a dozen industry-friendly …
REGIONAL— A last-minute provision that would have exempted future copper-nickel mines in northeastern Minnesota from state solid waste rules was just one of more than a dozen industry-friendly policy amendments that provoked a May 23 veto of the Legislature’s Agriculture and Environment omnibus budget bill by Gov. Mark Dayton.
Like many of the provisions, designed to weaken the state’s environmental rules, the solid waste exemption for possible future copper-nickel mines was never heard in a legislative committee, nor had it ever been introduced as a bill. Instead, it was added as an eleventh-hour amendment to the House Omnibus Environment bill by Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake.
“I am deeply disappointed that these provisions are part of a large bill that undermines decades of environmental protections,” said Gov. Dayton in a letter to legislators announcing his veto.
Dayton wasn’t alone in his concerns. Many fellow DFLers skewered several of the policy measures added to the budget bill during a House-Senate conference committee, and a large majority in the party voted against the final conference report in the DFL-controlled Senate. In addition to specific policy objections, opponents said the bill called for actual funding cuts to environmental programs, of approximately $62 million, at a time that the state enjoys a sizable budget surplus.
But Iron Range and some rural DFLers joined most Republicans to narrowly pass the measure in both bodies, sending it on to the governor. The measure was introduced in the Senate by Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, who called it a “very good bill, a compromise bill.”
The bill, in its original form, had long had the backing of the governor, who had pushed hard to include language to require vegetated buffers along all of the state’s streams and rivers. The agricultural portion of the bill had also included $16.4 million to help battle the effects of the avian flu, which has proved devastating to many poultry producers in the state.
Yet the governor saw many of the anti-environmental policy provisions packed into the final bill during the conference committee as too onerous to ignore.
Among the most egregious, according to the governor, was the provision to eliminate the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s Citizens Board. The board, first established in 1967, has long provided some degree of citizen oversight over the decisions of the agency, and has, on occasion, overturned recommendations by MPCA staff.
The provision to eliminate the citizens board never came up during the committee process in either the House or Senate. “This did not pass the Senate, it did not pass the House, and I think that means it’s not supposed to be in the conference report,” said Sen. John Marty during floor debate on May 18. “This is a significant shift in policy,” added Marty, noting that the omnibus bill was supposed to be limited to budgetary items. “It doesn’t belong in the bill,” he said.
Several DFLers raised objections to Dill’s copper-nickel mine waste exemption. “These things should be vetted by committees, not just added in the dark of night,” said Chris Eaton, a DFLer representing Brooklyn Center.
Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, noted that Dill’s amendment was written in a highly technical way that made it difficult for most members to grasp its significance. “Nobody knows what those provisions entail and why they were introduced or who they are benefitting,” said Dibble.
Dibble suggested that such provisions undermine the claims of copper-nickel mining supporters that the proposed mines can meet current environmental rules. “If so, then why a surprise amendment like this?” he asked.
The solid waste exemption proposed by Dill isn’t unprecedented. A similar provision exempts taconite mining operations from solid waste rules as well. The primary solid waste produced by taconite mines is waste rock, which is managed under separate permits for tailings basins.
Dill said the provision was aimed at avoiding duplication by eliminating the need for mines to get both a solid waste permit and a mining permit. He said regulations on solid waste could be included in the broader permit to mine. The measure passed on a voice vote in the House, said Dill, who contended it was not intended to weaken environmental protections.
“Every single thing disposed of by the company would go into a permitted facility,” Dill said. “Right down to the trash in the garbage cans.”
Neither the DNR nor the MPCA opposed Dill’s provision, arguing that it was intended to clarify the status of tailings basins. But environmentalists argue that if the measure is limited to disposal in tailings basins, the language should specify that, rather than provide a blanket exemption for all solid waste.
Kathryn Hoffman, an attorney for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, contends that it’s too early to know what kinds of material might be included in solid waste streams from copper-nickel plants. She said the proposed PolyMet plant would produce a sludge from its planned reverse osmosis wastewater treatment facility as well as from any hydrometallurgical processing that might eventually be done on site. Hoffman said such waste would likely be high in heavy metals and would likely be disposed of on-site, and she believes it’s unclear from the language in Dill’s provision whether it would be subject to regulatory oversight.
A majority of Senate DFLers appear to agree with those environmental concerns, and argued in a May 30 letter to Gov. Dayton that Dill’s provision must be removed from the Agriculture and Environment bill during the expected special session. “Broadly exempting as-of-yet unknown waste streams from potential sulfide mines is an unnecessary risk to water quality and public health. Proponents of nonferrous mining routinely mention that the mines will be environmentally clean because of Minnesota’s strong environmental rules. This secretive process for exempting the waste from environmental rules shows how false those claims are,” states the letter, signed by 23 senators.
Other last minute additions to the bill that provoked Dayton’s veto include:
• Transferring $59.4 million from two landfill clean-up funds, despite the existence of a billion dollar budget surplus.
• Granting amnesty to violators of the state’s pollution rules if they self-report violations.
• Requiring state agencies to provide companies seeking permits with three weeks notice of any plans for discretionary environmental review.
• Allowing nurseries to label plants that are potentially toxic to bees and butterflies as “pollinator-friendly.”
• Requiring the MPCA to conduct costly and time-consuming peer reviews and cost analyses of existing and anticipated water quality standards.
• Requiring the MPCA to conduct a rulemaking process, which typically takes 18-24 months, before enforcing any policy or guidance that meets the definition of a rule. The MPCA has, in the past, provided the public and businesses with policy explanations and guidance on routine MPCA rules and on state law, in part to avoid litigation and provide prompt explanations for businesses seeking permits.
• Suspending strict sulfate standards designed to protect wild rice until the rulemaking process is complete.
The laundry list of last-minute additions provoked strong opposition from environmental groups and their supporters, dozens of whom turned out to protest the bill at the governor’s mansion in the days following adjournment of the legislative session. In an impromptu meeting, Gov. Dayton went outside to talk with protestors, and their message apparently made an impression on the governor.
In his veto message, Dayton blamed DFLers in the Senate for all the additions, but Sen. Majority Leader Tom Bakk disputed that.
Bakk, who joined 10 other DFLers and all Senate Republicans in voting for the Agriculture and Environment bill, said he had warned House Speaker Kurt Daudt that his House members on the conference committee were loading up the bill with so many anti-environmental provisions that they were increasing the odds of a veto.
“I had told the speaker over those last few days that the environment bill, especially with (those) poison pill provisions one on top of another, is going to create a potential veto,” Bakk told David Montgomery and Rachel Stassenberger, who write on politics for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
The two reporters stated that Daudt confirmed Bakk’s warning.
Even so, the measure the House ultimately sent to the Senate ended up including those provisions — “so many that Bakk told Daudt that he would have to get Senate Republicans to vote for the bill because so many Democrats would not.”
In the end only 11 Senate Democrats, including Bakk, Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, and Tomassoni, voted for the measure. All of the Senate’s 26 Republicans voted in favor.
The Timberjay’s Cook-Orr Editor Tom Klein contributed to this story.