Judge launches investigation into state water quality permit process for PolyMet mine

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Ramsey County Courthouse Chief Judge John H. Guthmann launched his fact-finding investigation Tuesday into how the state approved a water permit for the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine in northeast Minnesota.

Allegations raised by environmental groups that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency improperly tried to suppress serious concerns by the Environmental Protection Agency about the project’s risks to clean water.

"Did the EPA have substantive concerns about the permit that should have been in the administrative record but were not due to procedural irregularities?” Guthmann said. “That's what the case is about."

The MPCA denies any procedural irregularities with regards to how the project was awarded. It added that the federal regulators did not object to the final water quality permit according to court filings.

The MPCA says its officials communicated frequently and extensively with their EPA counterparts and that the feds “fully informed” them about their concerns with the draft permit.

Hearing to investigate how state regulators handled PolyMet permit

The PolyMet project has been awarded numerous state permits for the proposed mine that says it will employ 360 people, and bring more than two million hours of construction work to the region to build.

A PolyMet spokesperson decided to comment on the developments in court today.

The Minnesota Appeals Court concluded there was “substantial evidence of procedural irregularities” and ordered the Ramsey County judge’s hearing to get to the bottom of them.

It suspended the water permit pending the Ramsey County Court judge’s investigation.

The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy is one of the group's in court pushing for answers from the state.

"It's big for the state of Minnesota because we deserve and need to know our regulators are protecting the public interest," said Aaron Klemz, a spokesman for the group. "Their job is to protect our water and their job is to protect our health."

Guthmann will hear testimony and gather evidence during the hearing that is expected to last five to 10 days.

He will then prepare written findings for the Minnesota Court of Appeals on the alleged procedural irregularities.

The appeals court will then consider his report as it weighs a broader legal challenge by PolyMet’s critics to the water quality permit that the MPCA issued in 2018 for what would be Minnesota’s first copper-nickel mine.

The MPCA said it doesn't anticipate issuing daily statements regarding this hearing, nor does it expect to hold daily media briefings.

You can view the court documents here and here.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.