MPCA and EPA kept Minnesotans in the dark on PolyMet concerns

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photo credit: NASA

By Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership – @mattjdoll

As evidence continues to mount that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) agreed to keep scientific concerns about Polymet’s pollution hazards out of the public record, more Minnesota voices are demanding an investigation: what were the EPA’s concerns, how were those concerns addressed, and have there been  any violations of state or federal law.

MPCA emails from 2018 released by the EPA employees’ union revealed that our Pollution Control Agency asked the Environmental Protection Agency not to submit a comment letter during the public input period for PolyMet’s state permits, and to instead hold phone meetings between the two agencies to discuss the sulfide mining project’s pollution potential.

This had the effect of keeping EPA employees’ concerns out of the public record, denying Minnesotans the chance to read or respond to the EPA’s analysis of PolyMet’s water permit.

In Minnesota, we like to think that we enjoy transparent government processes and rigorous environmental protections. This interagency collusion to distort and diminish the public record shows that the PolyMet permitting process was not fully transparent. That inevitably raises questions about the integrity of the final permit.

A fresh addition to growing fears of PolyMet pollution

According to the recently released EPA comments, several federal scientists were deeply concerned about the water quality permit possibly violating state and federal law. Instead of including these concerns in the public record, the discussions leading up to the MPCA issuing PolyMet a crucial water permit took place behind closed doors. The resulting permit is considered by many to be unenforceable, precisely because of the same issues raised by the EPA in their comments.

It isn’t explicitly clear why the MPCA and EPA kept Minnesotans in the dark on this issue. But it’s well known that PolyMet is a politically and environmentally contentious project that has already been the subject of major litigation.

It is also abundantly clear that sulfide ore mining has an abysmal track record for water pollution. No sulfide mine has operated anywhere in the United States without causing significant damage to the water and ecosystems around it. With PolyMet’s planned location lying in the headwaters of the St. Louis River and Lake Superior, a spill would be especially catastrophic to downstream communities and precious freshwater resources.

If the mine is built, the site’s mining waste storage dam will require maintenance indefinitely to prevent future spills. The upstream dam design is the same design employed by the dam that failed in Brazil in early 2019 killing hundreds, by another dam that failed in Brazil in 2015, and which has now been banned from being built in Brazil.

Minnesotans deserve answers

Throughout the PolyMet debate, Minnesotans have heard from sulfide mining backers and many elected officials that “The process must be allowed to play itself out,” and “Minnesota has some of the strongest clean water protections in the nation.” But the MPCA and EPA malfeasance in the process leaves it suspect, and calls to question whether Minnesota’s laws are truly designed protect our water pollution, or to streamline projects that threaten it.

We thank MEP partnering organizations, especially WaterLegacy, for helping to bring about the release of these troubling revelations. Minnesota needs more sunlight on PolyMet to ensure our communities are protected.

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