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Duininck lawsuit could have statewide implications

OLIVIA -- A lawsuit filed against Renville County by Duininck Inc., of Prinsburg, could have statewide implications for determining when environmental assessment worksheets must be completed for the expansion of gravel pits.

The Renville County Board of Commissioners met Tuesday with their attorney for environmental issues, Scott Anderson of Minneapolis, to develop the county's response to the lawsuit now before the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

Duininck Inc. requested a conditional use permit earlier this year to expand a 39-acre gravel pit in Section 1 of Sacred Heart Township.

The company indicated it wanted to expand the gravel pit, known as the Molenaar site, by five acres to 44 acres.

The Renville County Environment and Community Development office told the company that expanding the existing site over the 40-acre threshold would necessitate the completion of an environmental assessment worksheet.

An environmental assessment worksheet identifies if a proposed activity poses a potential environmental impact, and is part of the information considered in the permit process.

It is not as costly or as extensive as an environmental impact statement, which requires an analysis of possible environmental impacts and applicable state and federal laws.

Renville County informed Duininck Inc. that if it wanted to continue using the gravel pit this summer, it could apply for an interim use permit for 39 acres.

In the meantime, it could complete the environmental assessment worksheet and apply for a three-year conditional use permit for a 44-acre operation.

The company expressed its view that the worksheet should not be required for expanding an existing pit from 39 acres to 44 acres.

Based on the county's understanding of state rules, an environmental assessment worksheet would be needed to expand the site, according to Anderson. The 40-acre size is a trigger for a worksheet in the same way that an application for a barn to hold more than 1,000 animal units would trigger an environmental review, he told the Board of Commissioners.

The attorney said there are also other factors that a county must consider when determining if an environmental assessment is required for an expansion. One is known as the three-year look-back rule. If the existing project commenced less than three years ago and was not reviewed originally through an environmental assessment worksheet or environmental impact statement, the magnitude of the existing operation must be considered in combination with that of the expansion.

Whether operations are connected to others in the area, and whether a project is phased over time, are also factors the county must consider in determining whether to require an environmental review.

Anderson said he is not aware of any specific case law involving the state rules, and previously told the same to representatives of Duininck Inc. The company obtained an interim use permit to continue operations as a 39-acre gravel mine, but also filed the lawsuit to challenge the need for an environmental assessment worksheet.

The court has agreed to hear the case, even though Duininck Inc. has been able to continue mining the site.

If Duininck Inc. prevails in this case, it is likely that many other gravel pits across the state could be expanded incrementally without the need for environmental review, according to the attorney.

Both sides are submitting written materials for the court, which will likely hear oral arguments early next year.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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