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Mar 10, 2023

Op-ed: Counterpoint - Polluting projects fail in NE MN because they should

Our environmental reviews are there to protect our communities.

This op-ed appeared originally in the Star Tribune. 3/5/23

Opinion by Aaron Klemz, MCEA's Chief Strategy Officer, Minneapolis Office, 3/5/23



In June 2021, a last-second legislative deal was jammed into Minnesota’s state budget. Alongside over $60 million in subsidies, the legislation gave a partial exemption from Minnesota environmental review laws to persuade Huber Engineered Woods to build an oriented strand board plant in Cohasset. If built, the plant would have employed about 150 people, producing a subsidy of over $400,000 per job. The subsidies and the legislative deal had been negotiated in secret and rammed through with no community input.

One key community was completely blindsided — the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, whose reservation is just one mile away from the proposed plant site, raising concerns about effects on wetlands, forests, wild rice and other treaty resources its members depend upon. One other key opponent was an existing similar plant near Bemidji, which feared problems finding timber for its operation.

None of these facts were included in Ray Higgins’ lament (“Unbalanced regulation leaves northern Minnesota behind,” Opinion Exchange, Feb. 20). Instead, Higgins, from the Minnesota Timber Producers Association, presents Huber’s abandonment of its proposed plant as the result of regulation run amok. But there is a more accurate takeaway to the collapse of the Huber proposal. Once again, bypassing Minnesota’s environmental laws and ignoring impacted communities in an effort to lure in businesses has failed to create economic development in northeastern Minnesota.

For years, a small cadre of northeastern Minnesota economic and political insiders have pushed for massive subsidies and exceptions to environmental standards for a parade of bad economic development ideas. We’ve seen a “secret siding plant,” a “green biochemical plant,” a “clean coal gasification power plant,” and several sulfide mine proposals come and go. Nearly all were negotiated in secret and announced as a “done deal.” Many required last-second brute political force to ram through the Legislature. None have been built.

The common thread is not that overzealous regulations drove these projects away. No amount of subsidy and suspended standards were enough to make them work. They were fatally flawed because they failed to work with surrounding communities and/or could not meet Minnesota’s environmental standards.

The result of this repeated approach is not economic development and regional success, but rather painful division of the type we are seeing today on multiple fronts.

Contrary to Higgins’ assertions, Minnesota has dramatically improved our permitting efficiency since 2006. Data from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) shows that 99% of “priority permits” are issued within 150 days. And in Huber’s case, if they’d simply jumped into the environmental review process, they could have been done with a full environmental impact statement by now.

According to Commissioner Katrina Kessler, “the MPCA worked closely with Huber and prioritized their project by committing significant staff resources to develop and implement the most efficient and thorough permitting timeline.” But rather than see this through, Huber has decided to pack up and move on, leaving us to wonder what they were so scared a full environmental review would uncover.

On cue, a bill to slash environmental standards has been introduced, and commentaries across the state call for environmental standards to be lowered. This is taking away the wrong lesson.

Environmental review and permitting do not stop proposals. They improve proposals. When a corporation demands tens of millions in public funding as a condition of locating in Minnesota, they should also be willing to talk to their neighbors and follow our laws.

Political and economic leadership in northeastern Minnesota needs to grapple with how to develop a shared vision that a broad cross-section of the community can benefit from and support. Instead, they wallow in despair and blame everybody else when their “take it or leave it approach” fails once again.

A better way starts with genuine consultation and community engagement.
Minnesota’s environmental review and permitting laws are built to be part of this process.
That’s “balance” that all Minnesotans can support.