Minnesota adds staff to handle ‘tsunami’ of mining permits
Minnesota is taking a novel approach toward speeding up the regulatory process for heavy industries like mines applying for new and renewed environmental permits.
Instead of starving its regulatory agencies, it’s beefing them up.
The Department of Natural Resources and Pollution Control Agency will share an extra $1 million annually starting July 1 to hire six to eight new staff members who will help process permit applications and permit renewals from the mining industry.
It’s not a big addition to its overall staffing levels — PCA has 900 employees statewide, and the DNR has 2,700. But adding expertise in key areas will help the agencies answer more questions faster.
“The questions involved with these environmental permits are getting more complex. There is no such thing as a routine permit anymore,” said John Linc Stine, PCA commissioner.
DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr referred to an expected “tsunami” of permit applications and renewals, and he noted Gov. Mark Dayton has asked state agencies to work to reduce the wait time for permits.
The state officials were in Duluth on Wednesday for the closing session of the annual Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration conference at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. The three-day event attracted nearly 650 industry officials, engineers, suppliers and vendors from across the region.
Rather than wait for the backlog of mining permits to grow and the time from application to decision grow even longer, state officials asked lawmakers in 2013 for more money to add experts like hydrologists, planners, ecologists and others to help process applications.
State officials already know, for example, that they will see more than a dozen permit applications for the proposed PolyMet copper mine alone. Already, more than 60 DNR and PCA staff members have worked on the PolyMet Environmental Impact Statement process, and that doesn’t include private contractors reimbursed by the company.
State officials also know that the proposed Twin Metals copper mine near Ely won’t be far down the line, with other copper proposals possible. And there are several taconite iron ore mining permit renewals and expansions either in the works or on the way, with major issues like mercury and sulfate emissions sure to be controversial and complicated.
Tony Sertich, Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board commissioner, said several large taconite expansion projects hinge on key permits getting through the system.
The two agencies will share the staff members, moving experts where needed, Stine noted. Landwehr said the agencies already are screening applicants for the permanent positions that will start in July when the state enters fiscal 2015.
Even industry officials support the idea.
“The actual project environmental reviews are reimbursed by the companies. But they (state agencies) need the resources on hand to be able to jump from project to project,” said Frank Ongaro, executive director of Mining Minnesota, the copper industry trade group.
The extra $1 million will come from the state’s so-called “occupation tax” on taconite iron ore, paid in lieu of a state income tax. The money otherwise would have gone into the state general fund.
Landwehr and Stine told mining industry officials Wednesday that while the state’s environmental review process may seem to drag on for major projects, the end result will be agency decisions that will hold up to legal challenges and gain public support.
Stine noted the state has about 18,000 environmental permits in effect at any given time and said 95 percent are issued within 150 days. But he said mining projects, because of their large size and scope and broad range of environmental impacts, will always take much longer to review.