MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — An environmental lawyer accused the Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday of watering down a letter that praised progress toward completing a long-awaited review of plans for building the first copper-nickel mine in northeastern Minnesota.
Paula Maccabee of WaterLegacy says an early draft she obtained under the state freedom of information law was much tougher than the final version, which the mine’s developer has been publicly touting this week.
Maccabee, a former St. Paul City Council member, said she suspects the EPA softened its letter under political pressure but acknowledged she can’t prove it.
“The first letter is professional, straightforward and strong. The second one has some of the same issues in it, but it’s all sandpapered,” Maccabee said.
PolyMet Mining’s vice president for governmental and environmental affairs, LaTisha Gietzen, denied that the company put any political pressure on EPA to tone down the letter. She said PolyMet officials did get a copy of the draft from the lead federal and state agencies on the project, which asked the company to provide additional information to address the EPA’s concerns, but she said PolyMet didn’t work directly with the EPA on the matter.
“If that’s conspiracy I think the entire process of environmental review is flawed,” she said. “The EPA letter is positive but it still has 18 pages of work that needs to be done. I don’t think it’s a free pass.”
The final letter, dated Aug. 7, summarizes the EPA’s review so far of an updated environmental impact statement (EIS) still being prepared for the proposed mine near Babbitt and processing facility near Hoyt Lakes. It was written by Alan Walts, director of the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance in Chicago.
The updated EIS is expected to be released for public comment early next year after federal and state agencies finish reviewing and revising it. The EPA rejected the original EIS in 2010 as inadequate, setting the project back by at least a few years.
The final letter, sent to several federal, state and tribal agencies, omitted some pointed comments that were in the draft about impacts on water quality. Maccabee provided a copy of the early draft to The Associated Press.
“It appears that the project as proposed and analyzed in the (current EIS draft) may still result in water quality impacts that exceed water quality standards. We also note several areas where the lack of detailed analyses and detailed information on mitigation prevent the document from ruling out other water quality and quantity issues. These issues have been raised with the co-lead agencies numerous times,” read a section of the draft that did not make the final cut.
Walts did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment, and an EPA spokeswoman in Chicago, Phillippa Cannon, said she had no information on the letter.
The final letter said the current version of the still-evolving EIS “reflects significant progress in designing and clearly documenting the project.” And it says the EPA “appreciates the collaborative and constructive discussions” it has had with the lead federal and state agencies on the project.
Officials with other groups opposing PolyMet declined to comment on whether the changes between the two versions were significant. Kathryn Hoffman, staff attorney with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, said she didn’t find the final letter as complimentary as PolyMet has portrayed it. Nor did Betsy Daub, policy director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. They agreed the EPA still highlighted important issues that need to be addressed before the EIS is released for public comment.
“We’ve had eight years and really are seeing an EIS that still fails to provide fundamental information about the project after eight years of environmental review,” Daub said. “They’ve had a lot of time. It still looks like we are not getting at some fundamental issues.”
The upcoming EIS is expected to be a political hot potato for Minnesota’s Democratic leaders, who don’t want to get in the way of a project expected to create hundreds of jobs on the Iron Range, a party stronghold, but who also need to address the concerns of environmentalists who make up another part of their political base.
“All we are asking is the EPA do their job — do their job based on science and not based in having to sandpaper or sugarcoat if they find evidence of problems,” Maccabee said.
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