REGIONAL— A federal probe that began earlier this year with questions over the handling of the permitting process for PolyMet Mining is being expanded nationwide. The announcement, made Sept. 5 by …
REGIONAL— A federal probe that began earlier this year with questions over the handling of the permitting process for PolyMet Mining is being expanded nationwide. The announcement, made Sept. 5 by the U.S. EPA’s Office of Inspector General, suggests preliminary findings in the PolyMet case have raised alarms with federal investigators.
“The OIG’s objective for this audit is to determine whether the EPA’s reviews of state-proposed NPDES permits verify that the permits adhere to Clean Water Act requirements,” wrote Kathlene Butler, Director of the EPA’s Office of Audit and Evaluation.
Butler notes that the decision to expand the inspector general’s investigation is based on the investigation completed so far on the handling of PolyMet Mining’s water discharge permit, also known as an NPDES permit. “We will incorporate the results from our work assessing the PolyMet permit review into this nationwide audit of the EPA’s NPDES permit reviews,” Butler stated.
The decision to expand the federal investigation not only suggests that examiners are concerned with their findings to date. It also points to a substantially longer delay before the federal investigation is completed. Whether that could impact the ability of PolyMet Mining to advance its proposed NorthMet copper-nickel mine project near Hoyt Lakes remains to be seen.
The inspector general’s investigation has already been actively underway for months. Investigators have met with staff in the EPA’s Region 5 office as well as water quality staff from the Fond du Lac Band, which has been intensely engaged in the permitting process for PolyMet, particularly on issues of potential water pollution. “The fact that there is this expanded national audit, predicated on this complaint, tells me they’re taking this very seriously,” said Nancy Schuldt, Water Protection Coordinator for Fond du Lac.
A retired EPA attorney, Jeff Fowley, alerted the inspector general back in January about allegations of mishandling of the PolyMet permitting process that were circulating among EPA staff. The allegations center on potential cooperation between former Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner John Linc Stine and Cathy Stepp, the Trump-appointed administrator of the EPA’s Great Lakes regional office, to suppress concerns by professional staff within the federal agency that the PolyMet permit did not comply with the Clean Water Act.
EPA staff, who had worked on the PolyMet permitting process for more than a year, had drafted written comments outlining their concerns but were allegedly told they could not submit them to the MPCA as would normally be done as part of the process on a major permit. Instead, in April of 2018, the EPA staff read portions of their written comments to MPCA officials over the phone. MPCA officials acknowledge the phone conversation took place but have since stated in court filings that they discarded their notes of the call.
In order to address an ongoing legal fight over access to the original EPA comments, the federal agency released the seven-page comment letter to environmental groups, including Duluth-based Water Legacy, on June 12. The comments cited several instances where the EPA officials believed the PolyMet permit did not comply with federal and state water quality laws and rules and was likely unenforceable.
Fowley told the Timberjay this week that he is pleased to see the expanded probe. “I think it’s a great thing. There are problems like this all over the country. I think that PolyMet is just the worst example of a really bad trend.”
MPCA spokesperson Darin Broton denied that his agency made any attempt to dissuade the EPA from commenting on the PolyMet permit. “The MPCA cannot tell agencies not to submit comments,” he said. Rather, Broton says that the communication was intended to encourage the EPA to follow a process and timeline for commenting that had been used in the past for efficiency. “This is the process that MPCA has followed with other NPDES permits,” Broton said.