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House passes $830 million omnibus environment bill

Rep. Dan Fabian presents the omnibus environment and natural resources bill on the House Floor March 30. Photo by Andrew VonBank

The omnibus environment and natural resources bill was passed by the House 80-53 Thursday, with supporters calling it “common sense” legislation that slows government spending while adding transparency, and opponents objecting to several policy provisions.

Sponsored by Rep. Dan Fabian (R-Roseau), HF888, as amended, would appropriate more than $830 million in the upcoming biennium, reshape the Environmental Quality Board, and make changes to buffer regulations and some permitting processes.

“I just want things to work in Minnesota, I want things to go smoothly,” Fabian said. “We like clean water, we like clean air, we like clean land.”

But DFL members challenged several of the policy changes – and having included policy in the bill at all. Rep. Rick Hansen (DFL-South St. Pau) said the bill had 32 pages of appropriations and over 80 pages of policy.

“Some of the policies are veto bait,” Hansen said. “They’ll kill the bill if they stay in it.”

WATCH The omnibus environment and natural resources bill is introduced on the House Floor 

HF888 now goes to the Senate where Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen (R-Alexandria) is the sponsor.

The appropriations in the bill include:

  • Department of Natural Resources  - $547.2 million
  • Pollution Control Agency - $189.68 million
  • Explore Minnesota - $28.49 million
  • Board of Water and Soil Resources - $27.17 million
  • Minnesota Zoo - $17.82 million
  • Metropolitan Council - $17.08 million
  • Science Museum of MN - $2.15 million
  • Conservation Corps - $1.89 million
  • Administration - $1.1 million

Sophia’s law extension

There was one amendment adopted during the debate. It would provide an extension for commercial boat owners to comply with Sophia’s Law, which was passed in 2016 and requires carbon monoxide detectors on some boats as part of an effort to curb the number of boating deaths due to poisoning by the odorless gas.

Rep. Rob Ecklund (DFL-Intl. Falls) said the law was a good one, but commercial houseboat operators needed more time to install marine-grade detectors, which aren’t yet on the market.

“We’re asking for a five-month extension until they can get the marine grade units out and available,” Ecklund said.

Environmental Quality Board

The bill would make substantial changes to the Environmental Quality Board – a 14-member group that helps oversee environmental permitting and regulation – by modifying its composition and removing some of its authority.

It would eliminate the governor’s representative on the board and increase the number of citizen appointees from five to eight. The bill would also remove the board’s authority to determine which environmental problems of state concern it shall consider, to initiate interdepartmental investigations, to review state agency programs that impact the environment, and to review and report on proposed legislation relating to the environment.

Buffer revisions

The controversial buffer law would also be modified by several provisions in HF888. Under current law, buffers or alternative water-quality practices must be in place by Nov. 1, 2017, for public waters, and 12 months later for public drainage systems. This bill would make Nov. 1, 2018, the deadline for both.

It would also modify the buffer requirements so that 50-foot buffers would be needed on public waters classified as “shoreland,” while public waters without that classification would only need a 16.5-foot buffer. The DNR has testified this change could move 48,000 miles of buffers from the 50-foot category to 16.5-foot category and would make the mapping process more difficult.

Permitting changes

Fabian has called permitting reform one of his priorities, and the bill contains a number of provisions meant to make permits quicker and simpler to obtain.

One seeks to expand PCA’s expedited permitting to include the entire process, and would require the agency to provide cost estimates for each task involved – and a schedule – along with a written agreement that includes recourse for applicants if the schedule is not met.

Another provision would allow project proposers to prepare and submit their own draft Environmental Impact Statements, which are used to study the consequences of proposed activities on the environment. Proponents say this would hasten permitting, but opponents believe it could bias the EIS process.

The bill would also exempt some cities and businesses that build or modify wastewater treatment facilities to comply with wastewater regulations, from having to make additional capital investments for at least 16 years should those effluent limits change again.

Rep. Rick Hansen speaks to the omnibus environment and natural resources bill on the House Floor March 30. Photo by Andrew VonBank

Proponents say it provides regulatory certainty for those making large investments in wastewater facilities, while opponents believe it sacrifices future water quality.

DNR fee increases

The bill would increase daily state park permits by $2 and annual permits by $10, as well as a small increase for snowmobile registrations. But there are no increases for hunting and fishing licenses. The DNR has said that without those increases, the Game and Fish Fund – the primary source of the state’s fish and wildlife management funding – will be depleted by 2019.

Department officials previously testified the bill does not provide enough funding to cover its operating expenses and that dozens of employees could be laid off as a result.

What else would HF888 do?

HF888, as amended, also includes measures that would:

  • indemnify those who could be liable for cleanup costs of the Freeway Sanitary Landfill;
  • require money from the emissions violation settlement with Volkswagen be specifically appropriated before it can be spent;
  • allow counties, either partially or completely north of Highway 2, to file no-net-gain policies with the DNR, which would require a state agency acquiring land in one of those counties to sell an amount of land in that same county equal or greater to the amount gained;
  • allow adjacent property owners, or government agencies in some circumstances, to request a contested case hearing with the DNR when an application for a permit to mine is filed;
  • prohibit nighttime boaters from operating with non-navigation lights that are red, green or blue and visible on the exterior;
  • prohibit the DNR from adopting rules that further restrict the use of lead shot;
  • allow the DNR to release invasive carp back into the same water bodies where they are captured for research or control purposes;
  • prohibit harvesting of live mussels, but allow harvesting of mussel shells; and
  • allow hunters to use scopes on muzzleloaders during deer season.

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