Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

PolyMet permits in doubt?

Legislative auditor to review allegations against MPCA

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 6/26/19

REGIONAL— Minn-esota’s Legislative Auditor will conduct a review of allegations surrounding the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s decision-making process regarding a water discharge (NPDES) …

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PolyMet permits in doubt?

Legislative auditor to review allegations against MPCA

Posted

REGIONAL— Minn-esota’s Legislative Auditor will conduct a review of allegations surrounding the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s decision-making process regarding a water discharge (NPDES) permit for PolyMet Mining’s proposed copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes.

Rep. Rick Hansen, a South St. Paul DFLer ,called for the review on Monday. Hansen is the chair of the Legislative Audit Commission, which makes review recommendations to the legislative auditor.

“The allegations made regarding the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s handling of the PolyMet NPDES water permit require an independent, nonpartisan, third party investigation into the agency to ensure the public’s trust in our state’s ability to protect water quality and the environment,” said Rep. Hansen in a statement issued Monday.

The Timberjay, last week, was the first newspaper in the state to call for investigation of the MPCA’s actions by the legislative auditor.

The call for a review comes in the wake of the announcement that the Environmental Protection Agency’s Inspector General would be conducting a review of the federal agency’s actions related to the permit. EPA whistleblowers have alleged that top MPCA officials convinced Cathy Stepp, the Trump-appointed administrator of the EPA’s Great Lakes office, to withhold written comments from EPA professional staff expressing concerns that the permit that MPCA planned to issue to PolyMet did not comply with the Clean Water Act. A leaked email from former MPCA assistant commissioner Shannon Lotthammer, which was released last week by a union representing EPA staff, appears to confirm that the MPCA made such a request.

Hansen called for the state review just one day before the Minnesota Court of Appeals granted a motion by environmental groups and the Fond du Lac Band to send an appeal of the permit to a district court for further fact-finding over the MPCA’s process.

MPCA spokesperson Darin Broton said the state agency “welcomes the Office of the Legislative Auditor’s review of the PolyMet permitting process” and maintains that the permit went through a rigorous process. “The MPCA had frequent communications with EPA regarding the PolyMet permit, and addressed its concerns in the final permit,” said Broton. “The MPCA will show the Legislative Auditor, and the court, that the agency was following the long-held agreement with EPA and how the federal agency’s concerns were addressed. It is important to remember that the EPA is not questioning the permit’s validity because the federal agency did not object to the final permit’s content.”

Formal EPA objections to a state-issued permit are rare, and it remains unclear whether EPA professional staff felt such an objection was warranted but might have been overruled by regional administrator Stepp. Former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker appointed Stepp as commissioner of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, where she frequently came under fire for failure to enforce state environmental regulations. President Trump appointed Stepp to head the EPA’s Great Lakes office in late 2017 and told media at the time that she would bring the same priorities to her office as Scott Pruitt, who then headed the EPA in Washington, D.C. Pruitt later resigned over a series of ethics scandals after using his tenure to roll back many environmental regulations or substantially reduce enforcement.

Meanwhile, environmental groups are calling on the MPCA to suspend PolyMet’s permits until the various investigations and court cases reach a conclusion. “With a federal investigation, a state investigation, and now a district court hearing on the cover-up of the EPA comments, it’s time to hit the pause button,” said Kathryn Hoffman, CEO of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. “All of the PolyMet permits must be stayed and construction must not start until these investigations are complete.”

The MPCA did not respond to questions on a possible suspension of permits.

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