DFL lawmakers ask Gov. Walz to suspend PolyMet permits

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In this photo taken Feb. 10, 2016, the storage building stands empty at the closed LTV Steel taconite plant that is abandoned near Hoyt Lakes, Minn. is seen. The prospect remains of returning the site to life into Minnesota's first copper-nickel mine owned by PolyMet.
Jim Mone | AP Photo 2016

Eighteen Democratic state legislators say a flawed process has led to flawed permits for PolyMet Mining, which is bidding to build what would be the state’s first copper-nickel mine near Babbitt and Hoyt Lakes in northeastern Minnesota.

In a letter sent to Gov. Tim Walz Wednesday, they ask the governor to suspend the permits issued by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Department of Natural Resources “until they are rewritten to protect Minnesota’s environment and financial interests.”

State Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, said the letter was prompted by two recent developments.

The first, Marty said, was the release of documents detailing how staff at the MPCA asked the federal Environmental Protection Agency to read comments critical of the state agency’s water quality permit over the phone, rather than issuing them in writing as part of the public record.

Secondly, the letter expresses concern about PolyMet’s financial assurance requirements to cover mine clean-up costs and ongoing water treatment, after the Swiss mining giant Glencore became PolyMet’s majority stock owner earlier this month.

"It’s an issue that I thought was a done deal a few months ago,” Marty said in an interview with MPR News. “I thought that the permits had been given and it was done. But new information says, hey, let’s question this. If the permits were given in a flawed manner, the permits themselves are likely flawed."

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The call to cancel the permits is just the latest in a series of requests for further scrutiny of the PolyMet permits.

Earlier this week environmental groups asked Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison to investigate the relationship between PolyMet and Glencore.

Last month Minnesota’s legislative auditor announced it would investigate concerns over how the MPCA dealt with federal regulators in its issuance of PolyMet’s water quality permit. The Minnesota Court of Appeals is reviewing it as well.

MPCA spokesperson Darin Broton said the agency is reviewing its procedures to be more transparent moving forward. For future permits, he said the agency will take steps to ensure that comments from state and federal agencies are included in the public record.

But in response to the letter from DFL lawmakers, he insisted the water quality permit issued to PolyMet protects the environment.

"It is a highly technical and detailed permit that has very stringent standards and limits in there, requiring PolyMet to have superior technology to make sure that we are protecting water quality,” Broton said.

Walz’s press secretary Teddy Tschann said the governor “takes these concerns seriously. The [water quality] permit is currently being reviewed in court, and he believes that process should continue.”

Marty said he’s asked for a meeting with Walz, and plans to solicit more signatures to add to the request.

Meanwhile GOP leaders in the state legislature and other mining supporters blasted the letter.

"It's disappointing that metro Democrats are spreading misleading and false information about the environmental review process in an effort to derail this project,” said House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, adding he planned to respond in the coming days “with a letter signed by a geographically diverse, bipartisan group of legislators.”

“This is so classic that the opposition groups who are behind this letter are doing exactly what we anticipate them to do,” said Nancy Norr, chairperson of Jobs for Minnesotans, a PolyMet supporter. “They’re trying to create further delay in the process, because delay kills projects.”

In a statement PolyMet said “multiple internal and external reviews, along with unprecedented public comment opportunities, have occurred on all aspects of the project, and it has been determined that PolyMet meets or exceeds all factors of safety.”