Documents released Wednesday show the Environmental Protection Agency was concerned an earlier draft permit for PolyMet’s proposed copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes, set to be the first of its kind in Minnesota, would not meet the standards set in the Clean Water Act unless the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency made substantial changes to the permit.

The MPCA issued that water pollution permit and air permits to PolyMet later in 2018 after reviewing those comments and concerns and sending a revised draft permit back to the EPA in October 2018. The EPA made no additional comments on the revised permits before the MPCA awarded the final permit to PolyMet in December 2018.

The documents were made public after a lawsuit filed by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility on behalf of WaterLegacy, an opponent of the controversial mine, claimed the EPA wrongfully withheld the documents by failing to fulfill a Freedom of Information Act request.

WaterLegacy counsel and advocacy director Paula Maccabee told the News Tribune that the documents reveal exactly what the group had believed all along: the EPA had concerns about the draft permits and shared those concerns with the MPCA.

“This is a huge victory for transparency,” Maccabee said.

Maccabee and other opponents of the project allege the concerns were suppressed by the agencies and not made public.

The documents, Maccabee said, “in every other case and under normal practice would just be in the record right away and all you’d have to do is read it.”

The documents show the EPA warned the MPCA that the mine’s draft permits lacked water-quality-based effluent limitations — standards that ensure bodies of water receiving discharged water are not polluted — when returning the draft permits back to the MPCA in 2018.

“The above concerns must be addressed to ensure that the permit will achieve compliance with all applicable requirements of the (Clean Water Act), including water quality requirements of Minnesota and of all affected states,” Kevin Picard, chief of the EPA’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System programs branch wrote in a letter to Jeff Udd, the MPCA’s Metallic Mining Director. “If unaddressed, the above concerns may result in an EPA objection to a proposed permit.”

Maccabee also said the final permits still don’t have any water quality-based effluent limitations.

In a statement MPCA spokesperson Darin Broton disagreed, calling the permitting process “rigorous” and that appropriate changes were made for the final permits.

“Similar to other complex projects, the MPCA and EPA had frequent conversations during the entire permitting process to discuss technical items,” Broton said. “Based on those conversations, as well as other comments received from the public during the official comment period, the MPCA made substantive changes to the draft permit, including additional operating limits for arsenic, cobalt, lead, nickel, and mercury; and new language was added that clearly states that the discharge must not violate water quality standards. That’s why the EPA did not object to the MPCA’s final permit.”

Citing ongoing litigation, PolyMet spokesperson Bruce Richardson declined to comment on the EPA documents released Wednesday citing, but said the “(National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) permit issued by the state meets all applicable state and federal standards.”

The EPA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.