Public Lab Research note

Minnesota environmental review process—and exemption

by JuliaGuerrein | July 11, 2022 10:59 11 Jul 10:59 | #31271 | #31271

In 1973, the Minnesota legislature established an environmental review process through the Minnesota Environmental Policy Act of 1973 (the Act). The Act established an Environmental Quality Board (EQB), which creates rules in order to carry out the mandate of the Act. The EQB includes a representative from the governor's office, those in charge of nine state agencies related to environment and development, and seven appointed citizen members. Appointed members apply to become members of the EQB and then the governor appoints the members with the advice and consent of the Minnesota Senate. EQB advises organizations on the procedures of environmental review and oversees the review process. More information available here and here.__

The purpose of the environmental review process is to understand "the impact which a proposed project will have on the environment." Through this process, environmental review begins with an Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW). An EAW is a "brief document prepared in worksheet format which is designed to rapidly assess the environmental effects which may be associated with a proposed project."

If the EQB does not think the EAW sufficiently explains the project, it will require an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). State law requires the entity proposing a project to prepare an EIS "when there is potential for significant environmental effects resulting from any major governmental action." Importantly, the EIS must include one or more alternative, including a "no action" alternative. Additionally, the EIS must include environmental, economic, employment, and sociological impacts for each alternative. Under state law, certain projects are categorically exempt from submitting an EIS, such as "a facility or plant located outside the seven-county metropolitan area that produces less than 125,000,000 gallons of ethanol, biobutanol, or cellulosic biofuel annually, or produces less than 400,000 tons of chemicals annually," if the plant is an ethanol plant, biobutanol facility, or a cellulosic biofuel facility.

The Huber Frontier Project underwent an EAW process and published its EAW in January 2022. In June of 2021, the Minnesota Legislature passed an appropriations amendment that exempted the Huber Frontier Project from further environmental review, specifically an EIS.

Page 149 of the amendment, section 130, titled, "Facilitate Engineered Wood Product Manufacturing Facility; Itasca County.", states:

"Notwithstanding any law to the contrary, a corporation or other legal business entity that proposes an economic development project to build an engineered wood product manufacturing facility in Itasca County and that receives a written offer of financial incentives to be provided for that project from both the Department of Employment and Economic Development and the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation anytime during 2021 is exempt from the requirement to conduct a mandatory environmental impact statement that is triggered solely by the proposed facility's gross floor space area. The business entity is still required to conduct an environmental assessment worksheet (EAW) for any mandatory EAW categories, along with any subsequent environmental permitting required for the project after environmental review is complete. For any work in wetlands that cannot be avoided or further minimizes for this project, the business entity must conduct all required wetland permitting and agree to mitigate for any wetlands impacts at a ratio of 1.5 times the required mitigation ratio determined by regulatory agencies. Any wetland credits must be purchased in the same watershed."

Locals fighting against the Huber Frontier Project are calling for an EIS. Because the Huber Frontier Project does not have to file an EIS, the current EAW stands as its primary document detailing environmental impact. Therefore, the Huber Frontier Project is not required to include a discussion of alternatives, including a no action alternative. Despite requests for an EIS and further opportunity to comment on the project from local tribes and other citizens, the City of Cohasset moved forward with the Huber Frontier Project.

At a public meeting in March, community members were unable to participate in spoken public comment. Rather, the Cohasset City Council decided at the last minute to only accept written public comments. Video here. At the meeting, the Cohasset City Council silence community leaders and approved the EAW for the Huber Frontier Project.

Both the legislative amendment that exempted the Huber Frontier Project from a full EIS and the lack of in-person public comments at the Cohasset City Council meeting impede the community's ability to meaningfully engage in public review of the Huber Frontier Project.


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