On August 10, 2015, the Minnesota Court of Appeals declared valid water quality standards adopted by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) to limit eutrophication— the over-enrichment of waters with nutrients, which stimulates excessive growth of aquatic plants—in rivers and streams. See Minn. R. 7050.0150, .0220, .0222 (Supp.2014).  Minnesota Envtl. Sci. & Econ. Review Bd. v. Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, ___ N.W.2d ___, A14-1694 (Minn. Ct. App. Aug. 10, 2015).

The Minnesota Environmental Science and Economic Review Board (MESERB) and other petitioners brought a declaratory judgment action in the Court of Appeals alleging that MPCA failed to comply with statutory rulemaking procedures by not responding in a meaningful way to the petitioners’ comments during the rulemaking process. In particular, petitioners argued that the MPCA relied on outdated studies or failed to make the studies it relied on part of the public record.

The court agreed with the petitioners that state agencies such as MPCA have an affirmative duty—explicit under federal law, implicit under the Minnesota Administrative Procedure Act—to respond to public comments received in rulemaking proceedings, stating the main reasons for the agency’s decision and explaining why the agency reached the decision it did. However, in this case, the court held MPCA had satisfied this duty and adequately responded to the petitioners’ comments. The court noted that MPCA had responded to all of the written comments received after each public hearing, and had included in its responses citations to the documents or sources that provided the basis for MPCA’s position. Regarding the petitioners’ allegation that MPCA relied upon outdated or secret data, the court declined to “second-guess the MPCA’s use of or reliance on its chosen scientific or technical sources,” stating that agency decisions, including rulemakings, enjoy “a presumption of correctness” and that courts “should defer to an agency’s expertise and special knowledge.”