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Protesters gather in St. Paul to denounce abolition of MPCA Citizens' Board

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Protesters unhappy with the abolition of a public body designed to protect Minnesota's environment from development projects made their voices heard Tuesday morning.

After almost 50 years of providing public oversight of projects that had the potential to harm Minnesota's environment, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's Citizens' Board held its final meeting after it was scrapped in the recently confirmed state budget.

The board had opponents among some lawmakers and businesses over the power it wielded over MPCA decisions, but also plenty of supporters who agreed with having a civilian body to protect Minnesota's natural resources from pollution.

The Star Tribune notes that a rally was held outside the MPCA offices in St. Paul as the final meeting got underway, with placards waved and speeches made from former Minnesota Gov. Wendell Anderson, among others.

"It makes me feel good to see typical Minnesotans out here fighting for the environment," he told the newspaper. "Minnesota is a special place and we’ve got to keep it that way."

WCCO reports that Sens. John Marty and Scott Dibble, and Rep. Frank Hornstein were also among the protesters. Supporters of the board argue that it ensures public transparency and is a "guard against political influence" being used at the MPCA.

The Woodbury Bulletin reports that at its final meeting, the citizen's board was discussing whether to order further environmental reviews of a proposed wastewater treatment plant in Afton, Minnesota.

Should the board request further studies, Afton won't be able to commence construction this year as planned, which the newspaper notes will have a knock-on effect on local road and levee projects.

What did the citizens' board do?

The citizens' board is comprised of nine members: a state commissioner and eight citizens appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton and confirmed by the Senate. One had to be knowledgeable in the field of agriculture, while another was a representative of organized labor.

According to its website, the board was the MPCA's public oversight and decision-making panel, ruling on "varied and complex pollution problems that affects areas of the state," with its decisions made to protect the welfare of Minnesota's water, air and land resources.

It was established in 1967 and according to the Star Tribune operated by ordering environmental impact statements and making the final decision on controversial projects.

It had veto power over MPCA decisions, though the newspaper notes it only weighed in on a "handful" of the 3,000 permits handed out each year by the MPCA.

Why was it axed?

MPR News notes that over its almost 50 year life, the board "stood up for the environment, even in the face of local development opportunity."

But this proved to be its downfall. Last year, the board decided to order an environmental impact statement for a "mega-dairy" near Choklo – reversing the recommendation of the MPCA commissioner. This prompted some lawmakers to question the board's power.

This eventually led to the board's future becoming a feature of the most recent budget negotiations, with GOP lawmakers insisting that it be abolished as part of the environment and agriculture budget bill.

Gov. Dayton initially vetoed the bill partly because of this, with DFL senators and representatives trying to push through an amended version in which the board would be retained, but the GOP held its ground and the governor reluctantly signed off on it to avoid a government shutdown.

He referred to the bill as "terrible" and said he would do what he could to reverse the abolition of the Citizens Board in future years.

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