The union representing Environmental Protection Agency Region 5 employees in Minnesota, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 704, on Tuesday released an internal EPA email they obtained through an anonymous source contending the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) pressured EPA leadership to delay comments from EPA staff raising concerns about the permit for the controversial PolyMet mine.

At issue is whether the comments should have been submitted following guidelines of a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) that exists between MPCA and Region 5 EPA or during a public comment period. AFGE Local 704 questioned whether the timing represents malfeasance during the comment process. 

“We are releasing internal correspondence that we received anonymously which shows that the State of Minnesota pressured EPA Region 5 to delay submitting its comments on the PolyMet mine permit until after the public comment period elapsed,” said Nicole Cantello, President of AFGE Local 704, in a news release. “The apparent actions by both EPA and MPCA leadership to avoid transparency about the environmental impact of the PolyMet mine should raise serious flags for anyone who cares about the Boundary Waters.”

The union claims some EPA staff comments raise serious questions about the permit’s compliance with key requirements of the Clean Water Act.

“By asking EPA to submit its comments after the public comment period, in whatever form, MPCA was attempting to suppress those comments from public review,” said Cantello. “This suppression is completely inappropriate and allowed those comments to remain secret.”

The pertinent part of Lotthammer’s email, sent May 13, 2018, states:

“The concern we have expressed to Region 5 staff/mgrs is the timing of EPA comments, not the ability for EPA to comment. The draft permit that is the subject of this discussion is on public notice until March 16. We know that we will be making some changes to the draft permit in response to public comments, and also questions raised by EPA. We have asked that EPA Region 5 not send a written comment letter during the public comment period and instead follow the steps outlined in the MOA, and wait until we have reviewed and responded to public comments and made associated changes before sending comments from EPA.”

Following the apparent directive of Shannon Lotthammer, MPCA assistant commissioner,  EPA apparently did not submit a single public comment during the public comment period, nor did any such comments appear in the public record for the PolyMet permit, the union said.

In her e-mail, Lotthammer said: "The concern we have expressed to Region 5 staff/mgrs is the timing of EPA comments, not the ability for EPA to comment. The draft permit that is the subject of this discussion is on public notice until March 16. We know that we will be making some changes to the draft permit in response to public comments, and also questions raised by EPA. We have asked that EPA Region 5 not send a written comment letter during the public comment period and instead follow the steps outlined in the MOA, and wait until we have reviewed and responded to public comments and made associated changes before sending comments from EPA."

“Based on Lotthammer’s email, we believe this statement, just recently filed with the Court by MPCA, may be false,” said Cantello. “EPA and MPCA appear to have acted together to evade rules devoted to public transparency. This is unacceptable. In addition, the document seemingly contradicts statements made by MPCA to the Minnesota Appeals Court, raising issues of public integrity and trust for all involved. Minnesotans deserve full transparency when it comes to the safety of the water they and their children drink every day. EPA and MPCA owe the public an explanation, and those involved in these communications must answer for them.”