In recent weeks, Minnesotans have had a peek into the inside operations of two major state agencies– the Department of Natural Resources and the Pollution Control Agency. We should all be alarmed at what we have seen.
For years, particularly as these agencies have reviewed and issued permits for copper-nickel mines in our region, Minnesotans have been able to take some comfort in the notion that these agencies were utilizing a sound decision-making process, based on the best available information. Yet recent legal proceedings should have shaken the confidence of Minnesotans, even those who support these projects.
The revelations last week that the PCA wiped the computers of former commissioner John Linc Stine and the former head of the mining division, Ann Foss, within weeks of their departures, appears not only to violate the agency’s rules and state laws on records retention, it looks an awful lot like destruction of evidence. That’s particularly so given that PCA officials acknowledged that they not only wiped the former commissioner’s computer, but actually destroyed it. That has an awfully familiar ring, especially to residents of the Tower area.
Top officials with both the DNR and the PCA were well aware that litigation was almost certain in the wake of permit approvals for PolyMet. In fact, they had sought extra funds from the Legislature to allow them to hire top-shelf legal teams to defend them. For the PCA to now suggest they had no reason to believe these computers might have held records relevant to that litigation is simply not credible.
And there’s more. A former Environmental Protection Agency official testified in a Ramsey County court room last week that PCA officials had asked that his office not submit written comments on the state’s proposed water discharge permit, something no state agency had asked of him before. He testified that one PCA official told him they didn’t want written comments in order to avoid press coverage of the EPA’s numerous concerns about the legality and enforceability of the permit in question.
The legal case against the DNR, while perhaps less suggestive of a coverup, certainly raises troubling questions of its own. In their recent ruling on three permits issued by the DNR to PolyMet, the Minnesota Court of Appeals cited numerous concerns raised by the DNR’s own consultants about PolyMet’s proposed tailings dam and plans for a “wet closure” of the tailings pile once mining was completed.
Those experts described the permitted dam construction method, known as upstream construction, as “inherently less safe” than viable alternatives. They also noted that “the only reason” to use “upstream construction, over a conventional downstream-type approach, is to save money.”
The DNR’s own consultants called a plan to use bentonite clay as a cap on the tailings pile a “Hail Mary type of concept” based on “unsubstantiated, wishful thinking,” and stated that the permitted wet closure plan “will significantly increase the potential for a dam failure, and will result in costly monitoring and maintenance over the life of the project.”
The DNR’s experts also questioned the viability of PolyMet’s proposed land disposal of highly toxic residue from the planned hydrometallurgical concentrator. “The soft ground beneath the proposed residue facility consists of up to 30 feet of slimes, peat and tailings concentrate. This will not be an adequate foundation for the 80-foot-high basin,” they stated.
This is not what Minnesotans should expect from some of their top state environmental agencies. While supporters of the PolyMet project have regularly cited the length of the review and permitting process as evidence of thoroughness, the recent revelations surrounding both the DNR and PCA permits for the project suggest it was not time well spent. Minnesotans have a right to expect better.