Minnesota agencies are hoping for $6 million to defend controversial decisions made recently on projects like the permitting of PolyMet's proposed copper-nickel mine.
Within Democratic Gov. Tim Walz's $49.5 billion proposal for the next two years, $6 million is recommended for the Department of Natural Resources and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency "to defend their environmental and natural resources decisions whether in federal or state court, contested case hearings, mediation and other venues without imposing undue hardship on existing division budgets," according to the budget released Tuesday.
Since the DNR and MPCA granted PolyMet its permits late last year, environmental groups have appealed mine permits issued to PolyMet by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and water and air permits from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
In addition to PolyMet, the DNR is also involved in lawsuits regarding White Bear Lake groundwater levels, Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion plans, and the Mesabi Metallics mine site in Nashwauk.
"We need to be able to defend the decisions," DNR Deputy Commissioner Barb Naramore said Thursday. "People obviously have a right to appeal them - we're not questioning that at all - it's just there's cost to the state that goes with that and somehow it needs to be paid for."
Of the $6 million requested to defend those decisions in court, $2.8 million would be appropriated to the DNR in 2020 while $3.2 million would be appropriated in 2021. The DNR would then transfer $1.6 million to the MPCA, which will use that money exclusively for defending its PolyMet permit decisions. The budget would also allow the DNR to hang on to $500,000 of previously appropriated funds.
Adonis Neblett, general counsel at the MPCA, said that while the agency believes it was in the right when approving PolyMet's air and water permits, going through the appeals process is a necessary step in allowing other stakeholders to participate in the process.
"From my perspective, it's not so much the importance of defending, it's the importance of confirming whether or not the agency's decision is sound and justified," Neblett said.
The Legislature has approved money for the agencies' legal fees in the past - in 2015 and 2016, the DNR received $750,000 and $300,000, respectively, for water management legal costs; in 2016, the DNR received $3.2 million and the MPCA received $1.2 million for PolyMet-specific legal fees; and then in 2017, the DNR received $1.5 million and the MPCA received $500,000 for general legal fees.
But this time around, the amount requested is larger.
"We've just had quite a confluence of very complex, high-profile decisions that are being vigorously appealed," Naramore said.
If the item were to fail in the Legislature, Neblett said the MPCA would likely have to drop its outside council, which it has relied on, and turn to the Minnesota Attorney General's office.
Without the appropriations, the DNR would have to pay its legal fees with money reallocated from elsewhere in the agency.
But that "would be very painful," Naramore said. "Because what that means is there's other work, other important work that the Legislature has decided to fund previously that we would be having to pull money away from."