March 2018 Vol. 26, No. 1

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Environmental Quality Board: finding solutions for Minnesota

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Photo: Minnesota Environmental Quality Board

As a newly appointed Minnesota Environmental Quality (MnEQB) Board public member, I recently had the opportunity to have a good conversation with Will Seuffert, executive director of the MnEQB. I would like to share what I learned with local government transportation agencies. From long experience, I know they share respect for preserving and enhancing the environment, as well as a mission of constructing and maintaining safe and effective road and bridge systems.

What is the MnEQB?

The MnEQB is a small agency that has evolved over the years since its 1970s establishment by the state legislature. Once having a major role with energy transmission projects, a large staff and a part of the State Planning Agency, it now stands alone with its current mission:

The board structure has evolved also. After last year’s legislation, it currently consists of nine state department heads and eight public members. The 2017 legislation ensured a greater public voice geographically representing the entire state by requiring a public member from each of the Congressional Districts.

Environmental review

The MnEQB develops rules and implements Minnesota’s environmental review process, primarily environmental assessment worksheets (EAWs) and environmental impact statements (EISs) for large and complex projects, including road and bridge projects above a set size threshold. This is a complex area overlapping with federal environmental review requirements. Seuffert indicates the state rules date back to the 1970s and are in the process of being updated. Current permits require a substantial amount of information, perhaps reducing the need for environmental review documents.

A couple of interesting facts: two-thirds of EAWs and EISs are administered by local Responsible Government Units (RGUs). At the suggestion of counties, the MnEQB is currently considering changing the threshold for environmental review from 1 mile of new road to 2 miles.

Coordination of environmental issues between state agencies

Environmental issues are often complex and cut across several state agencies. A core purpose of the MnEQB is to bring these agencies together to ensure a quality discussion across these agencies and inject a greater public view. An example: the legislation established an interagency climate project with a goal of reducing greenhouse gases by 80 percent by 2050. To achieve this goal, state agencies must work together—including the DNR, DOT, Administration, Commerce, and more.

The MnEQB provides a forum for these agencies to collaborate and reach together toward this goal. A major requirement for meeting this goal is involvement of the public and local governments, recognizing local governments do much of the heavy lifting and state agencies are there to facilitate this work. Toward this end, the MnEQB is emphasizing greater public involvement and has recently hired a local government coordinator to reach out to local governments.

Hopefully, this coordination can extend to streamlining the permit process. Currently, water-related permits are required from the DNR, MPCA, BWSR, sometimes Watershed Districts, and the Army Corps of Engineers for many road safety projects. This streamlining has been a major effort of the Minnesota County Engineers Association in the past.

Special projects

The MnEQB authorizing legislation allows the MnEQB to pursue special environmental projects. The focus has been on environmental projects that cut across several state agencies where the MnEQB provides a structure and process for the agencies to collaborate. It also, by reaching out to the public, provides a greater public voice. Current examples include establishing continuous vegetative corridors for pollinators, climate change, and water quality.

Certainly, agriculture and water quality will continue to be an important issue, with the governor setting a goal of 25 percent better water quality by 2025. Energy production and transmission are undergoing substantial changes that also need to be better understood.

The MnEQB and the future

I believe the MnEQB has a strong future, considering the environmental challenges ahead of us and the absolute need to develop collaborative solutions between state and local agencies, the public, and private sector. Its core mission of collaboration and actively seeking a greater public voice will help build a stronger Minnesota.

Alan Forsberg, P.E., retired Blue Earth County Engineer