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Investigation finds EPA mishandled oversight for PolyMet mine permits

A new report found the EPA didn't follow its own procedures when it submitted comments on the proposed project.

A report from the inspector general for the Environmental Protection Agency found the EPA didn't follow its own procedures when it submitted comments about the proposed $1 billion PolyMet mine in northern Minnesota over the phone, instead of via written comment, to keep it out of public record.

The report, released Wednesday, details the flawed review of two permits that were issued for the controversial mine PolyMet wants to build near Babbit and Hoyt Lakes, adding more uncertainty to the future of the proposed mine as many of its permits are under review or stayed. 

Related [March 19]: Army Corps of Engineers pulls PolyMet's wetlands permit

The EPA's Office of Inspector General began an audit in June 2019 to look into the handling of comments, when it shared comments on concerns on the draft permit for PolyMet's proposed copper-nickel mine over the phone with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, instead of in writing. 

The inspector general found:

"Region 5 did not address all CWA (Clean Water Act) and NPDES regulations during its review of a draft NPDES permit for a mine and processing facilities to be built by PolyMet Mining Inc. along the St. Louis River in northeastern Minnesota. Despite its concerns about the NPDES permit, Region 5 did not provide written comments to Minnesota, contrary to the region's standard operating procedures and per common EPA practice. 

"In addition, Region 5 repeatedly declined to make a formal determination ... regarding whether discharges from the PolyMet NorthMet project may impact the quality of waters within the jurisdiction of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, whose tribal lands are 125 miles downstream from the site of the PolyMet NorthMet project. The tribe was therefore unable to avail itself of the NPDES permit ojbection process ..."

The inspector general recommends that Region 5 provide written input on any resubmitted dNPDES permit for the NorthMet project, and that it commit to making formal determinations regarding downstream water quality impacts.

Region 5 did agree with the two recommendations and they have been resolved with "corrective action pending."

“This report confirms that the PolyMet water permit was rushed and the public was kept in the dark by its own PCA about EPA staff concerns, resulting in a weak permit that endangers people downstream," Elise Larson, senior staff attorney for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA), said in a statement.

"We're glad EPA has acknowledged this breakdown in process and highlighted EPA's concerns. With all the problems, it's clearly time for MPCA to revoke the permit."

The inspector general's report is one of three inquiries into the handling of the comments, the Duluth News Tribune says. The Minnesota Court of Appeals is weighing the issue after a district court judge last fall said the MPCA broke no laws or procedures by asking the EPA to keep the comments private. And the Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor is also investigating how the MPCA handled the comments. 

The NPDES permit is currently suspended by the Minnesota Court of Appeals, MCEA notes, marking one of four permits issued to PolyMet that are either suspended or overturned. A fifth permit related to air pollution is under review by the Minnesota Court of Appeals. 

MCEA says "strong and more immediate action should be taken by the State of Minnesota," including revoking the PolyMet water permit. 

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