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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Questions raised

Why weren’t PolyMet’s permits done right the first time?


For the past few years, former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson and many others have been asking questions about the state of Minnesota’s apparent willingness to issue permits for copper-nickel mines, like PolyMet, that appear to lack the regulatory heft that we all have a right to expect from our state agencies.
Minnesota has a deserved reputation for strong environmental laws, but those laws aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on if the state officials charged with enforcing those rules aren’t doing their jobs. As we’ve reported on numerous occasions over the past few years, virtually all of the major permits issued by either the DNR or the state’s Pollution Control Agency have been reversed or otherwise set aside by the courts from the district level right up to the Supreme Court for failing to abide by the state’s own laws and administrative rules.
While we can, perhaps, take some solace knowing that we have courts willing to challenge our own regulatory agencies, the real question that state officials, from the Governor’s Office to the Legislature, should be asking is why these permits weren’t done right the first time.
Carlson and others have raised uncomfortable, and appropriate, questions about relationships between state regulators and some of those they’re tasked with regulating.
We’ve seen the revolving door at work, at times, with a former DNR assistant commissioner who went on to lead the MPCA before finally taking a top job with PolyMet. We’ve had MPCA officials pressuring the Environmental Protection Agency to refrain from issuing public comments on PolyMet’s water discharge permit because they didn’t want the media to know of the EPA’s concerns about some of the omissions in the permit. That is absolutely unacceptable. The MPCA should have been worried only about addressing the EPA’s concerns. Instead, it focused on keeping those concerns from the public and out of the administrative record that courts would rely on to assess their due diligence in the permitting process.
No one involved in that incident should still be employed by any regulatory agency in the state of Minnesota, but one of the key MPCA officials involved is now an assistant commissioner at the DNR. This is all troubling and it raises questions about the transparency and integrity of our state government.
When Minnesotans see state regulators acting as lap dogs for the industries they’re supposed to keep in check, it raises logical concerns. Those concerns only grow when the primary owner of PolyMet is Glencore, an international conglomerate that is known around the world for using bribery, fraud, and other shady tactics to gain access to commodities such as metals.
While Minnesota has long had a solid reputation for honesty and ethics in government, the fact that state regulators have, time and again, issued permits for the PolyMet project that failed to pass legal muster is a red flag that should not simply be shrugged off by Gov. Tim Walz or state lawmakers.
If state regulatory agencies don’t have the capacity or the competence to issue proper permits, state officials need to get them the resources and people they need to ensure that they can do so in the future. If, instead, state regulators are too cozy with companies like PolyMet, heads should roll and those discharged should be replaced by individuals willing to do the job the right way.