EPA review faults permitting for proposed Minnesota mine

MINNEAPOLIS — An internal investigation has found that the Environmental Protection Agency mishandled its oversight of permits for what would be Minnesota’s first copper-nickel mine, according to the federal agency’s inspector general.

The findings describe a flawed review of two permits issued for the $1 billion mine that PolyMet Mining Corp. wants to build near lakes Babbitt and Hoyt, which are about 200 miles (320 kilometers) northeast of Minneapolis, in northeastern Minnesota.

The latest development adds more uncertainty to the stalled mine project. Many of the permits issued so far have been stayed or are under review.

According to the report, the EPA’s Region 5 office in Chicago, which oversees Minnesota’s enforcement of federal pollution laws, violated standard operating procedure when it didn’t write out its concerns about the water permit in a letter to the state, the Star Tribune reported.

Instead, the EPA went over the list by phone with staff of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the concerns went unresolved. The MPCA issued the permit in late 2018.

The EPA office also ignored three formal requests by the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa for notice of the potential impact the polluted copper mine discharge would have on downstream water quality, as federal law requires. The tribe lives on the St. Louis River downstream from the proposed mine site.

The inspector general recommended that the EPA’s Chicago office provide written input of the water pollution permits and commit to determining downstream impacts.

Following the release of the latest EPA report, environmentalists called on Minnesota regulators to revoke the mine’s water pollution permit.

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