Suppressed EPA Concerns About Mega-mine Surface

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June 13, 2019
Hudson Kingston

Suppressed EPA Concerns About Mega-mine Surface

Billion $ Minnesota Nickel /Copper Mine Will Cause Big Pollution Headaches

Washington, DC — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has released its own staff’s year-old objections to major pollution consequences from a controversial mining project, in response to a lawsuit brought by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The case illustrates how EPA now avoids required oversight of state-issued pollution permits.

At issue is PolyMet Mining’s planned $1 billion NorthMet mine copper-nickel mine in northern Minnesota. The mine and processing plant would occupy 19,000 acres in the St. Louis River basin, creating a permanent pollution source in the river flowing into Lake Superior. The project would also destroy more than 900 acres of wetlands.

The PEER suit sought to uncover EPA’s stifled objections to the state permit. The EPA Great Lakes Regional Office had developed seven pages detailing problems with proposed permits. Notes on materials released to PEER indicate that “information underlined…was conveyed verbally to MPCA [the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency] on April 5, 2018…word for word…” (Emphasis in original). Among the concerns EPA staff raised were –

  • the project is “expected to release significant amounts of mercury into downstream navigable waters…[leaving] mercury from this … project wholly unregulated”;
  • no permit limits for pollutants such as pH, fecal coliform, Total Suspended Solids, and Biochemical Oxygen Demand;
  • the permit as written “may preclude enforcement” under the Clean Water Act.”

EPA had forbidden its staff from filing formal comments on the proposed state PolyMet permits. Instead, it allowed staff to read excerpts from its undelivered comments to state officials. PEER filed suit after EPA refused to voluntarily disclose the full agency comments in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

“The concerns raised by EPA staff are not nitpicky but are very basic objections about serious contamination consequences and likely violations of state water quality standards,” stated PEER Counsel Kevin Bell, who filed the FOIA lawsuit. “Rather than litigate the matter, EPA has made what it calls ‘a discretionary release’ so that we can all see what was written but undelivered.”

Despite the seriousness of the objections EPA raised, the issues were not addressed by the state, nor are the issues yet fully part of the ongoing litigation challenging the state permits.

“Under the current administration, EPA is a pollution watchdog not only on a leash but under a muzzle, as well,” added PEER Science Policy Director Kyla Bennett, a scientist and attorney formerly with EPA, pointing out that EPA’s withdrawal from regulatory oversight is national in scope, not limited to Minnesota. “As this PolyMet case demonstrates, Administrator Andrew Wheeler’s policy of ‘deference to the states’ functions as an abdication of EPA’s core mission.”


Read the suppressed EPA PolyMet comments

See the PEER FOIA lawsuit

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