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No Power Line v. Minnesota Envtl. Quality Council

Citation: 8 ELR 20310
No. Nos. 48014 et al., 262 N.W.2d 312/11 ERC 1001/(Minn., 09/30/1977)

A 1973 Minnesota statute, the Power Plant Siting Act (PPSA), vested regulatory jurisdiction over electric transmission line siting with the Minnesota Environmental Quality Council (MEQC), and included a grandfather clause exempting powerlines to be constructed prior to July 1, 1974, if application therefor was filed within 90 days of enactment. Respondent utilities applied for an exemption for the powerline at issue within the statutorily prescribed period, but they subsequently withdrew that application and submitted the project to the jurisdiction of the MEQC. At the conclusion of administrative proceedings considering the proposed powerline, the MEQC adopted the hearing examiner's report, which designated a route for the line and issued a certificate of need and a construction permit. Several intervenor citizen groups appealed, challenging the subject matter jurisdiction of the MEQC, the validity of the administrative proceeding, and the timing of the environmental impact statement (EIS) prepared under the Minnesota Environmental Protection Act (MEPA) by the agency. A state district court found in favor of appellees on all counts, and the Minnesota Supreme Court affirms.

In a case of first impression on whether a party should be excluded from the purview of a grandfather exemption in a regulatory statute, the court eschews analogous case law in favor of a close look at the intent behind the legislation. Guided by the PPSA's twin goals of orderliness and public participation in the decision-making process of the agency, the court rules that all doubts over the jurisdictional scope of the MEQC be resolved in favor of a finding that the statute applies and that the agency properly exercised jurisdiction.

Despite finding some merit in appellants' claim that MEPA required the preparation of an EIS at the earliest stage of the proceedings, the court finds that the presumptive validity of administrative actions weighs against reversal of the agency's actions in this case. Similarly, full recognition of the broad discretion given the MEQC under the applicable statutes requires rejection of the balance of appellants' procedural objections.

Appellants also alleged that the agency misapplied the relevant ambient air quality standards. The court holds, however, that although the allegation is supported to some degree by the record, it would be clearly unreasonable to deny the permit requested in this case on the grounds that the line would result in a violation of ambient standards. The court also finds unmeritorious appellants' arguments that the agency erred in failing to join several indispensable parties and in certifying only a portion of the administrative record to the trial court. Finally, the court finds itself justified in staying the administrative proceedings pending its review of the case.

In a concurring opinion, Judge Yetka notes that the passage in 1973 of a spate of environmental legislation mandated upon state agencies an affirmative rather than a passive role in the utility licensing process. Under those Acts, the agencies should be required to undertake aggressive and independent analyses of environmental impacts, the need for the proposed facility, possible alternative sources of energy and other issues, which the MEQC failed to do in this case. The concurrence also calls upon the legislature to consider more fully the public's interest in environmental matters and to mandate more clearly that state agencies give heed to that interest.

The full text of this opinion is available from ELR (18 pp. $2.25, ELR Order No. C-1151).

Counsel for Appellants
George Duranske
Kief, Duranske & Fuller
207 4th St., Bemidji MN 56601
(218) 751-2221

Counsel for Appellee Minnesota Environmental Quality Council
Warren Spannaus, Attorney General; Stephen Shakman, Donald A. Kannas, William E. Dorigan, Special Ass't Attorneys General
102 State Capitol, St. Paul MN 55155
(612) 205-2591

Counsel for Appellee United Power Ass'n
Roger C. Miller
LeVander, Gillen, Miller & Magnuson
402 Drovers Bank Bldg., South St. Paul MN 55075
(612) 451-1831

Counsel for Appellee Cooperative Power Ass'n
John E. Drawz
LeFevere, Lefler, Pearson, O'Brien & Drawz
1100 First Nat'l Bank Bldg., Minneapolis MN 55402
(612) 337-0543

Sheran, J.; Yetka, J. concurs specially.