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Leaked email calls into question approval of PolyMet mine permit

The EPA was apparently asked to keep its concerns about the project out of the public record.

A leaked email has called into question how state regulators handled a water permit for the proposed PolyMet Mining project in northern Minnesota.

The American Federation of Government Employees Local 704, which represents Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 5 employees in Minnesota, on Tuesday released an email between the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and the EPA.

In the email, MPCA Assistant Commissioner Shannon Lotthammer asks the EPA not to submit its own comments about the PolyMet project during the public comment period.

This kept the federal watchdog's concerns about the PolyMet project out of the public record at a crucial time for the project, which would see PolyMet mine copper, nickel, cobalt and other metals on land near Hoyt Lakes and Babbitt in Minnesota's Iron Range.

Lotthammer wrote:

“We have asked that EPA Region 5 not send a written comment letter during the public comment period and instead follow the steps outlined in the MOA (Memorandum of Agreement), and wait until we have reviewed and responded to public comments and made associated changes."

The water quality permit was approved by the MPCA in December, with the email leaked by the union dated the previous March.

AFGE Local 704 says that the email shows "apparent malfeasance" in the permitting process.

It comes 5 days after the EPA announced it would be opening an investigation into the MPCA's handling of the permit, after its concerns about the project weren't included in the formal record.

The Star Tribune reported that the EPA's concerns were released after requests submitted by U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum and Water Legacy, among others, and revealed that the EPA said the water permit authorizes "discharges that would exceed Minnesota’s federally-approved human health and/or aquatic life water quality standards for mercury, copper, arsenic, cadmium, and zinc."

"The apparent actions by both EPA and MPCA leadership to avoid transparency about the environmental impact of the PolyMet mine should raise serious flags for anyone who cares about the Boundary Waters," said Nicole Cantello, President of AFGE Local 704, in a press release.

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In a statement on Tuesday, Rep. McCollum said the email represents "an absolutely intolerable breach of the public trust by two regulatory agencies."

"The public has every right to question whether the PolyMet permitting process was rigged against the legitimate environmental and public health interests of Minnesotans," she added.

The Memorandum of Agreement referenced in the email relates to the EPA delegating responsibility for the operation of the federal National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) to the MPCA.

The MPCA issued this statement to BMTN:

“The newly released email highlights the long-standing agreement between the EPA and MPCA that gives the state agency the authority to administer the federal permit program for water discharge. Similar to other complex projects, the MPCA and EPA had frequent conversations during the entire permitting process to discuss technical items. The MPCA made substantive changes to the draft permit based on those conversations. It is important to remember that EPA ultimately did not object to MPCA’s permit for PolyMet.

"Our rigorous, professional permitting process ensured the EPA and the public’s comments were heard and addressed."

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