An environmental group claims the Environmental Protection Agency is wrongfully withholding documents that contain staff comments on the state-issued pollution permits issued to PolyMet's copper-nickel mine proposed near Hoyt Lakes.

In a lawsuit filed Tuesday by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility on behalf of WaterLegacy, the groups argue the EPA failed to fulfill a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by WaterLegacy last year for the federal agency's comments on the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's draft water pollution permits for the proposed mine.

The MPCA issued that water pollution permit and air permits to PolyMet late last year.

WaterLegacy counsel and advocacy director Paula Maccabee told the News Tribune Tuesday that the lawsuit was filed to uncover comments that she believes show the EPA had concerns about the permits.

"We will finally allow the public to know what EPA career professional staff had to say about the dangers of PolyMet water pollution and what needs to be in the state permit in order to protect Minnesota waters," Maccabee said.

Through public information requests, WaterLegacy obtained documents that show EPA staff members commented on the MPCA's draft water pollution permits by phone, instead of in writing.

Maccabee argues that handwritten notes taken by MPCA staff members during the phone calls, obtained by WaterLegacy and shared with the News Tribune, show the EPA staff had concerns about the permits.

PEER staff counsel Kevin Bell said the phoned comments eliminated easily accessible records of the EPA's concerns.

"EPA apparently wants to ensure there is no paper trail evidencing the very real concerns of career professional staff," Bell said in a news release.

An EPA spokesperson declined to comment Tuesday citing ongoing litigation.

WaterLegacy is taking other legal action against the PolyMet project. The group is appealing mine permits issued to PolyMet by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and water permits from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The group also filed a lawsuit challenging a land exchange between the U.S. Forest Service and PolyMet.

Although Minnesota regulators have granted PolyMet its state permits, the company still needs a wetlands permit from the Army Corps of Engineers.

News Tribune reporter Adelle Whitefoot contributed to this report.