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Newly released documents detail EPA's concerns over PolyMet

Jun 14, 2019 05:35AM ● By Editor
A former iron ore processing plant near Hoyt Lakes, Minn., that would become part of a proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine is seen in February 2016. Photo:  Jim Mone | MPR

By Dan Kraker from Minnesota Public Radio News - June 14, 2019

Staff scientists at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had serious concerns last year that the PolyMet copper-nickel mine might not be able to meet state and federal water quality standards under the Clean Water Act, according to documents released Thursday.

The scientists' comments were written more than a year ago in response to a key permit the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency issued to PolyMet Mining. But they were never submitted. Instead, they were released this week as part of a Freedom of Information Act case an environmental group filed against the EPA in an attempt to make them public. 

In court filings, the St. Paul-based advocacy group WaterLegacy questioned whether the EPA comments had been suppressed as the MPCA developed the final water quality permit it eventually granted to PolyMet last December. 

WaterLegacy and Minnesota U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum applauded the documents' release. 

"All Minnesotans have a stake in ensuring that the quality of our water is protected, and the public has a right to access essential information about whether a project of this magnitude meets the spirit and letter of the law," said McCollum, who, as chair of a House subcommittee with jurisdiction over the EPA, had also pushed for the release of the documents.

The water quality permit and an air quality permit were the last two state approvals PolyMet needed to move ahead with its NorthMet copper-nickel mining project, which would be located near Babbitt and Hoyt Lakes in northeastern Minnesota. It capped a review and permitting process for the controversial development — which is set to become Minnesota's first copper-nickel mine — that's stretched well beyond a decade.

Copper-nickel mining poses potentially more severe environmental risks than the state's long-established iron ore mining industry because the process used to extract the minerals from the sulfide rock can result in acid mine drainage, which can leach heavy metals and other pollutants into nearby surface and groundwater. 

That's why the project's water quality permit, which sets limits on the pollutants that can be released into groundwater, lakes and streams, was so heavily scrutinized when the MPCA announced it had been issued in December. 

Four environmental groups — the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness and WaterLegacy — along with the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, quickly challenged the water quality permit at the Minnesota Court of Appeals. They argued the permit failed to comply with federal and state standards.

Soon after, in January, retired EPA attorney Jeffry Fowley filed a complaint with the agency's inspector general, alleging that administrators in the EPA's Chicago office had "suppressed" staff comments that were critical of the PolyMet water quality permit.

But in a brief filed Wednesday in the appeals court case, the MPCA acknowledged it had come to an agreement with the EPA "that EPA would provide oral [rather than written] comments to MPCA." The documents EPA released Thursday show that EPA staff had significant concerns about the permit. EPA scientists were especially concerned that it failed to include specific limits on the amount of pollutants the mine can discharge, — known as "water quality-based effluent limits" — which are put in place to ensure that projects can meet federal environmental standards. 

EPA staff had prepared detailed written comments, but the agency never filed an objection to the MPCA's permit plan. And instead of publicly submitting those comments in writing during the public comment period part of the permitting process, staffers at both agencies agreed that the EPA would read them to MPCA staffers over the phone. 

As a result, the EPA scientists' concerns did not become a part of the administrative record, which appeals courts rule on — and which the Minnesota Court of Appeals will rely on in its review of the MPCA's decision to issue the permit. 

To read more of the original article and see related reporting, follow this link to the MPR News website.

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