The pros and cons of conducting a generic environmental impact statement on nitrates in the groundwater in the karst region in the southeastern part of the state was the focus of the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board's March meeting held at the St. James Hotel in Red Wing on Monday, March 25.

Laura Bishop, EQB chair, welcomed approximately 150 people to the meeting, saying, "I know I speak for all the board members when I say that we all take this job seriously, and we look forward to a real collaborative process in coming up with ideas and solutions for some of the state's greatest environmental challenges."

She explained that the purpose of the March meeting was to hear opinions from many perspectives on the nitrate problem as well as what members of the public think about the possibility of conducting the Generic environmental impact statement - GEIS - as requested in January by John Linc Stine, commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Staff members from EQB and the MPCA provided an overview of the GEIS process and explained that most of the evening would be spent in small group discussions at tables in the Summit Room at the St. James.

"At the MPCA, we think a GEIS is a really good idea for this part of the state," said Glenn Skuta, division director at MPCA. "That's why we made that request, but we want to know what each of you think about that idea."

Skuta said many people have filed proposals for facilities in the region. He showed a map of Minnesota with areas highlighted in red where more than 10 percent of wells are above the drinking water standard for nitrates.

"This is a big concern for all of our agencies," Skuta said. "Looking at this map, the area with concerns with drinking water is bigger than one township, bigger than one county. It is a regional problem."

Because many people in the region have expressed concerns about nitrates in their drinking water, Dave Benke, division director with MPCA, said, "There is a lot of research that exists and we need to make sure that we can connect that. We believe that the GEIS can do that for us. It can provide a synthesis of all that research into one place and provide us with a link to action that we can take for prevention and mitigation."

EQB board members and trained facilitators were seated at tables around the room to help encourage and promote discussion. Each group discussed the opportunities in doing a GEIS, concerns about doing a GEIS, and whether to recommend that the EQB board support the GEIS.

Facilitators took notes on the discussions. Those comments will be compiled, summarized, and presented to the EQB board. They will then be posted on the EQB website.

"The discussions here tonight will inform the EQB decision on whether or not to order a GEIS," Bishop said. "The board will be deliberating and voting on this later this spring or summer."

If the EQB board votes to support a GEIS, the request still must go through a legislative process, according to Bishop. "We know this is being considered," she said, "but we don't know what the decision will be."