EMILY — Can environmental regulations be streamlined to shorten the permit process to save job-creating companies money and time while protecting the environment?
Tuesday, senators from the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee were in the lakes area to tour sites — in Emily, Crosby and Brainerd — and get more information from project areas in regard to accelerating the permitting process as a way to create economic growth.
“There isn’t a soul around here who wants to ruin the environment — nowadays that isn’t going to happen. It just isn’t,” said Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, chairman of the committee, as he toured the manganese extraction project site near Emily. But permit process may take years, he said.
“If you tell that to the average folks in Minnesota they’ll go, ‘What is going on?’” Ingebrigtsen said. “But I know people have a right to protect the environment and if it’s reasonable and if it actually is going to do that, then we should be doing that. But I can’t imagine why is should take five years.”
The manganese project near Emily seems to be working quite well, he said.
Cooperative Mineral Resources, a subsidiary of Crow Wing Power, hosted the tour and provided an update on the project to use high-pressure water jets to extract the ore 300 to 400 feet below the surface.
One to three billion pounds of the richest manganese in North America is believed to be below the surface. The manganese deposits are concentrated on a 12-acre footprint on an 80-acre property. They followed more rigorous state rules for nonferrous mining with a third-party review in an effort to stand up to potential environmental challenges.
Company officials said protecting the environment is a chief concern. They monitor wells on site, nearby residential wells and water from six area lakes and put in measures like a vehicle washing station to keep the manganese from leaving the site. Manganese is a beneficial trace mineral found in the body, but excess amounts may cause health concerns.
The extraction began in August but the manganese, used in making steel and car batteries, was harder than expected. Char Kinzer, Crow Wing Power, public relations manager, said they are studying core samples now and considering using water jets along with another method for extraction with the hard substance. They estimate they are still two to three years from starting production. Part of it is the permit process, they said, along with their own due diligence.
Earlier this spring the Senate Environmental and Natural Resources Committee worked on and promoted a bill to streamline regulatory processes. Gov. Mark Dayton signed the bill.
Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Brainerd, Environmental and Natural Resources Committee member, said the committee’s work has been about getting government out of the way and helping promote private sector jobs.
When a company wants to expand, Gazelka said the “environmental left” that doesn’t want an expansion is willing to take the issue to court. Gazelka said one of the changes from the bill eliminated a step to district court by sending the issue directly to appellate court.
That change alone, Gazelka said, could save more than four months time and hundreds of thousands of dollars. A Marvin Windows expansion in North Dakota took three months in that state and would have taken 13 months in Minnesota, Gazelka said. All states have the same federal environmental protections, Gazelka said.
“It needs to be both,” Gazelka said when asked if it was a question of jobs or the environment. He said in Germany there are more stringent standards and a faster permit process. Gazelka said the permit processing speed had less to do with staff limitations than the bureaucratic process.
Although official with the manganese mining project in Emily said one of the problems has been working the DNR or Minnesota Pollution Control Agency staff who had multiple projects to work on at the same time. They suggested having one person follow a project through the process and they pointed to a repetitive public comment process for each step.
Ingebrigtsen said he’s willing to look at the multiple public comment process. While he said he knows people don’t become interested until a site is actually being built, but wasn’t sure that should have to stand in the way of business. Folks really need to pay more attention, he said, and with public notices there is no excuse for missing the meetings.
“It seems like the environmental folks have really got a hold in the government process and they have to become a little more reasonable,” Ingebrigtsen said. “But again you can only damage the environment once. But let’s get reasonable that’s all I ask.”
Gazelka also favored an ombudsman to help companies through a complex process. “We know we now have to move at the speed of commerce,” he said. “It it’s not good for Minnesota, let’s turn them down quicker and if it’s good for Minnesota, let’s pass it quicker.”
Another change from the bill increased the number of signatures needed to petition for an environmental assessment worksheet. Gazelka favored requiring 100 signatures from the area, but the bill allows the 100 signatures to come from Minnesota. Gazelka said his reason for wanting to limit the geography was based in northern Minnesota having different belief systems and needs than the metro region.
A change with the bill has a goal of 150 days to either issue a permit or deny it. Gazelka said there may be valid reasons to take more time, but now a report is needed.
It was a full-day affair for the committee members and support staff who arrived in Emily about 9:30 a.m. then met at Cycle, Path and Paddle in Crosby about 1 p.m. to talk about the economic impact of the new mountain bike trail. Later that afternoon, the tour included the proposed Mississippi River Northwoods Habitat Complex project by the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport. At 6 p.m., a presentation on aquatic invasive species was planned at the Crow Wing County Highway Department.
RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5852.