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Posted: Saturday, December 15, 2012 10:49 pm

Frustrations over cumbersome, costly and lengthy federal and state permitting processes is not limited to taconite and copper/nickel/precious metals mining projects.

“Fifteen percent or more on a road project is spent on permitting or wetland mitigation. Say one project is $20 million ... take 15 percent of that and it’s $3 million just in permitting cost to the county,” said St. Louis County Board Chairman Keith Nelson of Fayal Township.

How bad was that for a specific project a few years ago, a bridge over the Littlefork River that was a joint venture between St. Louis and Koochiching counties? “The permitting cost more than the bridge,” Nelson said.

The county commissioner wants the issue addressed and has set up a two-day session in Washington the first week of February where “top-level” elected and appointed officials will meet together face-to-face to do just that.

“I’m so tired of going to the federal government and then the state government and seeing each of them point fingers at the other one. The goal is to get everyone in the same room. I’ve found it’s a lot more difficult to point fingers when the person being pointed at is right there,” Nelson said.

The commissioner, who will step down as board chairman in January but will then oversee the Lands & Minerals Department, will bring his plan to the County Board on Tuesday. He has already broached the subject with a couple commissioners, including Chris Dahlberg, who will be named board chairman in January.

Cost to the county “will probably be about $15,000,” Nelson said. “But Commissioner Dahlberg, who is 100 percent supportive, also said there is a necessity for us to get out there. And if we save even 5 percent on permitting for one project it will be paid back on that alone.”

The county contingent will host a social event on Tuesday, Feb. 6, after they arrive earlier in the day, for Washington congressional staff of 8th District DFL U.S. Rep-elect Rick Nolan, Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken and agencies involved in the permitting process.

Nolan will then host the meeting on the permitting process the next day. Nolan has already agreed to getting Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials to the meeting.

Commissioners Nelson, Dahlberg and Mike Forsman will attend from St. Louis County along with some other county officials. And Nelson hopes that officials from surrounding counties Lake, Itasca and Aitkin will also attend. He has contacted them.

In addition, Nelson has requested state legislators to contact the governor to get top staff from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Department of Natural Resources to Washington for the discussion.

The commissioner said what is needed most is a “finite” time frame on permitting along with all agencies, state and federal, being on the same page.

“We can’t go through five years of permitting on a project and then have (U.S.) Fish and Wildlife step in and say no. It can be mining, a building, a road, a new library or any other project.

“We need a finite time clock, and that’s especially critical with the ferrous and nonferrous industries,” Nelson said.

The commissioner added that the problem is not just certain preservationist groups that have an agenda of delaying certain projects, especially copper/nickel/precious metals. He said a “cottage industry” of lawyers, engineers and consultants has grown around permitting.

“The longer the better for them as far as a permit. Others are getting rich on permitting,” Nelson said.

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