Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

EDITORIAL: Investigate the MPCA

Did top agency officials conspire to keep EPA concerns from the public?

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The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has tough questions to answer as more information is being revealed about apparent efforts by the state environmental agency to keep critical comments regarding PolyMet Mining’s water discharge permits from the public and the courts.

Let’s make no bones about it— this appears to be a significant state agency scandal suggesting intentional malfeasance by top officials in the MPCA. Failure to investigate how this happened would seriously undermine the public’s confidence in state environmental regulators.

As we reported last week, the Environmental Protection Agency, under legal challenge from Minnesota tribes and environmental groups, finally released comments prepared by professional staff in the Great Lakes regional office that expressed serious concerns about a water discharge permit for PolyMet. Those comments included concerns that the permit appeared to violate the federal Clean Water Act as well as water quality standards for the state of Minnesota in multiple ways.

For groups fighting the permit in court, it was a game-changing document. It is no longer just environmentalists and tribal officials alleging that the permit that the MPCA issued late last year is flawed. Their arguments are now backed up by professional staff at the EPA. It’s no wonder that top officials at MPCA may have attempted to keep those views under wraps.

The revelations should bolster the arguments of tribes and environmentalists to move the case to district court for additional fact-finding. The courts have an interest in getting to the bottom of this. If, as it appears, top state officials at the MPCA colluded with the Trump-appointed director of the EPA’s Great Lakes regional office, in an effort to suppress these critical comments, the implications are staggering. Judicial review of executive agency decisions is fundamental to our system of governance, yet it can only work if the agencies involved can be trusted to operate in good faith, by ensuring that the full and complete record of their decision-making process is made available. If critical comments from fellow agencies with considerable expertise are simply deep-sixed in order to keep the courts from getting a look at them, judicial review loses all meaning and purpose.

Finally, questions need to be answered on why it is that the MPCA issued a water discharge permit to PolyMet Mining that includes no water quality-based effluent limits. We have reported more than once on the lax nature of far too many of the water discharge permits issued to mining companies in our region.

Minnesota may have sound environmental laws, but enforcement of those laws has been a major issue for decades. If the MPCA has fallen victim to what’s known as “industry capture” then it’s time to clean house at the agency and hire people who are willing to enforce Minnesota law, not play bureaucratic games to avoid doing so.

While the apparent wrongdoing here dates back to the Dayton administration, it is up to Gov. Tim Walz to make sure that this kind of thing doesn’t happen again. The EPA’s Office of Inspector General has already opened a federal investigation into what happened surrounding the PolyMet water discharge permit. The governor should follow suit by referring the matter to the Office of the Legislative Auditor for a special state investigation.

What is alleged in this case is public malfeasance and such actions, if true, are grounds for dismissal. If anyone at the MPCA was, in fact, involved in this apparent subterfuge they should be out the door. This is a serious matter. If necessary, heads should roll.

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