Minnesotans are proud of our stewardship of the bountiful natural resources of our state. We reassure ourselves of the expansive coverage and strength of our state’s environmental regulatory protections to keep water, air, and land clean. There seems to be an unstated belief that it is acceptable to invite foreign mineral-extractive corporations to our state because our protections are so stringent as to dispel any concern about pollution or harm to our air, water, beautiful and pristine lakes, and our lands abundant with wildlife.
Regulatory protections are only as strong as the enforcement mechanisms designed to keep them effective. Enforcement failed in the case of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency water permit for the PolyMet mine in thoroughly unethical ways that should never have happened and should never happen again.
We learned recently how important those mechanisms can be to the continued health of our environment and the public’s trust of our regulatory agencies. Specifically, Ramsey County District Court Chief Judge John Guthmann’s ruling in the evidentiary hearing in the case of the Environmental Protection Agency’s comments on the water pollution permit to mine for PolyMet issued by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
Although Judge Guthmann ruled that the MPCA did not, in general, deviate from most of its standards, he did note that the agency improperly deleted emails of a discussion between EPA and MPCA staffs. These emails were not placed in the public record but should have been. Through a lengthy discovery process, these emails were revealed. They showed that the MPCA attempted to delay the EPA from submitting comments critical of the PolyMet mining project until the public comment period had ended.
In a permitting case as risk-laden to the St. Louis River watershed and to Lake Superior as the PolyMet mine, such manipulation of public information is an extremely troubling failure of enforcement of regulatory protections. The public has a right to information pertinent to all regulatory enforcement. In this case, important EPA comments expressing grave concerns about the lack of water quality-based effluent limits were withheld.
Paula Maccabee, advocacy director and counsel for the nonprofit WaterLegacy, stated, “We didn’t learn about the EPA’s withheld comments through the MPCA’s permitting processes. These comments were revealed only due to confidential (whistleblower) sources and Freedom of Information Act lawsuits filed by WaterLegacy and settled by the federal government.”
The value of laws and safeguards rests on the trust of the people in their integrity and, just as importantly, their enforcement. Lapses or breaches of enforcement of environmental regulatory protections cannot be acceptable. Minnesotans demand a higher standard from all agencies entrusted with the care and protection of our natural resources for the sake of healthy communities across the state.
Linda Herron of Duluth is a volunteer for the Sierra Club’s Clean Energy Team and the writer of this commentary. It was submitted also by Sierra Club organizer Jenna Yeakle of Duluth; Sierra Club Duluth Clean Energy Team members Tom Thompson, Jo Haberman, Ann Miller, and Jesse Coenen; University of Minnesota Duluth professor Kathryn Milun; and Lisa Fitzpatrick of Duluth Climate Mobilization and Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light.