The claim that PolyMet opponents are part of a game of Whac-A-Mole with their environmental concerns is deeply troubling — especially coming from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the same agency tasked with protecting Minnesota’s clean water. Comments made by MPCA officials in the Aug. 15 News Tribune “Our View” editorial, “PolyMet opposition like Whac-A-Mole,” showed that the agency has refused to do any self-reflection and instead is doubling down on defending the mistakes of its predecessors.
Environmental groups do have concerns, but we’re not alone. Do you know who else thought these concerns were real? The Minnesota Court of Appeals. Despite what the MPCA may say, the Court of Appeals found the evidence of a cover-up so credible that it took the nearly unprecedented step — only the second time in the history of Minnesota — of sending the matter to district court to determine the extent of the MPCA’s document suppression. Is that a real enough concern? Or is the Minnesota Court of Appeals an environmental activist group now?
The editorial was right on one thing: We are concerned. We’re concerned that PolyMet, potentially the first copper-sulfide mine in the history of Minnesota, will be far more polluting than taconite mining. We’re concerned that the number of jobs promised is vastly inflated and could be far less, due to automation, by the time the mine opens. We’re concerned that Minnesota taxpayers will be left on the hook for a potential billion-dollar clean-up. The reason these concerns keep coming up is not that they are unfounded or part of a Whack-A-Mole game, but because they were never addressed properly.
The claim that Minnesota has the strictest environmental laws in the world is simply false. Just because a teenager says they’ve been cleaning their room for three hours doesn’t mean it’s clean. Just because PolyMet has taken 14 years to get its mine off the ground doesn’t mean it was undergoing strict environmental review the entire time.
The fact is our “process” is not intended to stop projects that might pollute. Minnesota desperately needs to update its laws to fix this. Until we do, just going through Minnesota’s review process will not be proof of safety.
As part of this same process, it appears the MPCA willfully suppressed concerns from scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency that the PolyMet permit would allow the pollution of Lake Superior. The EPA concerns were so severe that a top scientist sent a 29-page memo outlining problems with the permit, including saying the permit fails to regulate the discharge of mercury. This memo was sent on Dec. 18, 2018; the MPCA issued the PolyMet permit two days later. Does that seem strict to you?
The editorial referred to these charges of document suppression by the MPCA as an “orchestrated controversy.” Yet it wasn’t us who told the EPA to hide its concerns about PolyMet from the public; that was the MPCA. It wasn’t us who approved a dam safety method that just killed 250 people in Brazil; that was the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. If this controversy was orchestrated, it wasn’t by us.
The MPCA claims it doesn’t know what PolyMet opponents want, so I will make it clear: We want a transparent government and a wastewater permit that won’t violate the Clean Water Act. We want Minnesota’s regulators to listen to science, which clearly shows copper-sulfide mines always pollute water-rich environments like the one in Northeastern Minnesota. Instead of claiming that 14 years means this process was stringent, we want our state officials to step up and make tough decisions for the good of Minnesota.
No matter how many scientists say this will pollute, or how many health professionals say this will harm the drinking water, or how many local business owners say this will destroy their livelihoods, PolyMet supporters continue to turn a blind eye. There’s only one side in this debate using facts and science, and it’s not the side of PolyMet and its supporters. Let’s not pretend otherwise.
Scott Beauchamp of St. Paul is policy director for the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness (friends-bwca.org).