The union representing workers at the Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday released an email which they say shows the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency tried to stifle concerns the EPA had on a permit for PolyMet’s proposed copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes, set to be the first of its kind in Minnesota.

The American Federation of Government Employees Local 704, which represents the EPA’s Region 5 employees in Minnesota, sent news organizations a copy of an email sent by then-MPCA Assistant Commissioner Shannon Lotthammer to EPA Region Chief of Staff Kurt Thiede on May 13, 2018. In the email, Lotthammer asked Thiede and the EPA to wait on commenting on a PolyMet draft permit until the public comment period ended.

The union said it obtained the email through an anonymous leak.

“By asking EPA to submit its comments after the public comment period, in whatever form, MPCA was attempting to suppress those comments from public review,” Nicole Cantello, president of AFGE Local 70, said in a news release accompanying the leaked email. “This suppression is completely inappropriate and allowed those comments to remain secret.”

Cantello cited a section of the email where Lotthammer wrote, “We have asked that EPA Region 5 not send a written comment letter during the public comment period and instead follow the steps outlined in the (memorandum of agreement), and wait until we have reviewed and responded to public comments and made associated changes before sending comments from EPA.”

Lotthammer is now the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ assistant commissioner overseeing forestry, parks and trails and operations services.

Lotthammer declined to comment on the leaked email or the union’s response to it when reached via email by the News Tribune Tuesday afternoon. She directed inquiries to MPCA spokesperson Darin Broton.

In a statement, Broton said the MPCA made “substantive changes” to the permit based on numerous conversations between the MPCA and EPA and provided the memorandum of agreement between the MPCA and EPA that Lotthammer referenced in the email to the EPA.

“Today’s released email highlights the long-standing agreement between the EPA and MPCA that gives the state agency the authority to administer the federal permit program for water discharge,” Broton said.

In her email to the EPA, Lotthommer said the memorandum of agreement laid out steps for the EPA and MPCA to follow regarding comments made by both public and other agencies.

“The concern we have expressed to Region 5 staff/mgrs is the timing of EPA comments, not the ability for EPA to comment,” Lotthommer said. She reiterated later: “The question is about the timing of that review , and the importance of maintaining the approach laid out in the (memorandum of agreement) for the sake of clarity and efficiency, among other goals.”

The leaked email comes less than one week after the EPA released documents showing the agency was concerned a draft permit would not meet the Clean Water Act standards unless the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency made substantial changes to the permit and the EPA’s office of inspector general said it would audit the agency’s PolyMet permitting procedures.

EPA concerns over the permit have slowly come to light after Jeffry Fowley, a retired EPA attorney, said multiple people raised concerns with him that the EPA’s concerns and comments on PolyMet’s draft permit were told to the MPCA over the phone instead of in writing, leaving their concerns out of the public record.

“In all of my years of experience, I have never heard of a situation where EPA personnel have read written comments on a permit to state personnel over the phone,” Fowley wrote in a sworn declaration to Minnesota Court of Appeals. “There is no legitimate reason why written comments which could be sent would instead be read over the phone.”

For Paula Maccabee, counsel and advocacy director WaterLegacy, an environmental group opposed to the mine that has requested numerous EPA documents on PolyMet’s permit, the leaked email was confirmation of what Fowley had been saying for months.

“It was our hypothesis that the reason why the EPA political leaders suppressed what the career staff had to say was because Minnesota had put pressure on them. But we didn’t have proof, and now we do,” Maccabee said. “And that’s extremely troubling.”