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Reps. Andrew Falk, DFL-Murdock, left, and Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, look up state laws Thursday dealing with the issuance of permits. Tribune photo by Don Davis

Lawmakers discuss streamlining permits

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News Willmar,Minnesota 56201 http://www.wctrib.com/sites/default/files/styles/square_300/public/fieldimages/1/1130/falknew.jpg?itok=LdyNDEwA
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Lawmakers discuss streamlining permits
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

ST. PAUL -- U.S. Steel Corp. announced plans to expand its Keetac iron ore production facility three years ago so it could produce more taconite pellets. But it still awaits government permits, delaying hiring hundreds of workers.

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U.S. Steel estimates construction would create 500 temporary jobs and provide 120 permanent jobs on the Iron Range.

Despite spending $20 million so far to provide information, update plans and go through the permitting process, the Pittsburgh-based company said its $300 million project near Keewatin is on hold indefinitely as it waits for the end of a state environmental review.

Stories like that of U.S. Steel are driving state Republican lawmakers, with support of Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, to reduce time the state takes to conduct environmental reviews and issue permits needed before many businesses expand or open new Minnesota facilities.

And it isn't just large companies or big projects facing delays.

Lon Aune was one of four county engineers from northwestern Minnesota who carpooled to St. Paul Thursday to share permitting frustrations with a House energy and environment committee.

Aune said he is not against regulation, but he has seen delays, even on small projects, that have stretched project timelines, hurt farmers and, at times, put residents in danger.

"We are not able to get our projects competed in a timely manner to meet the needs of our residents," said Aune, Marshall County engineer. "These delays we're seeing are taking projects that are very simple in northwest Minnesota and causing them to drag out three, four, sometimes five years, so the residents aren't able to travel on a safe road. They're not able to get the proper drainage to get their crops out, things of that nature."

Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, made streamlining these processes the subject of the House's first bill of the session, calling on government agencies, particularly the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, to speed up their reviews.

"It's about reducing timelines," Fabian said. "It's about creating jobs, it's about taking burdens off of local governments, it's about lifting some of the heavy weights off of businesses that are trying to expand."

Specifically, the bill calls on the DNR and PCA to make it a goal that environmental or resource management permits be issued or denied within 150 days of submission and requires those agencies to accept electronic submissions, an effort to speed things up. But the bill, which could receive final House approval within two weeks, does not require all permits be issued in 150 days; it is just a goal.

The bill also would reduce final approval times for environmental impact statements and allow project proposers to prepare draft environmental statements for government review rather than having to wait until governmental agencies do the work.

DNR and PCA officials already are examining their permitting and environmental review processes. Jeff Smith, director of the PCA's industrial division, said the organization manages between 15,000 and 18,000 permits a year and receives more than 6,000 applications each year. Usually, he said, the process goes smoothly.

The 20 to 40 each year that take longer generally are the largest and most complicated, involving ethanol, mining, power plants and similar industries. They take longer because they are complex and because they draw interest from environmentalists, community groups and others.

"We don't need to streamline everything," Smith said. "It's a tiny blip of the total permits we issue."

Andrew Tellijohn is a Twin Cities freelance writer

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