The numerous legal, rhetorical and legislative probes into how the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency interacted with comments from their counterparts at the federal EPA are being hyped as the impenetrable proof that PolyMet’s permits are somehow illegitimate. Project critics — who have opposed the mine every step of the way during its decade-plus environmental review process — see this as a turning point to hit the reset button on the whole thing.
They might want to temper their expectations. Barring something not only unforeseen, but totally negligent of former Gov. Mark Dayton and his administration, only the hands of time delaying this project will turn as the active investigations unfold.
That doesn’t mean taking a second look is without merit. Rather the opposite. Whether the EPA's Office of the Inspector General, the Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor and a district court find something of substance or not, the process to reach these approved permits is being opened up further to the public as a valuable explainer on these complex projects.
For the Iron Range, which is hinging its hopes on an influx of jobs from PolyMet and its construction phase, the challenges to PolyMet are just a preview of what’s to come for Twin Metals if the company makes it through the environmental review stages unscathed.
That wasn’t the early case for PolyMet. Its first attempt at launching the project was stalled when regulators kicked back the company’s first proposal for more work. But even in that setback, there’s a positive to lean on this time around.
Minnesota acted then on a strict set of guidelines to protect the environment. It did it then and took another decade to review PolyMet again, and green-lighted the project. The process worked and it can work again.
The bigger question is where does it stop? As the auditors, inspectors and courts make their decisions, what happens if PolyMet continues to come out on top? Keep in mind, the same commissioners who approved these permits — Tom Landwehr of the state Department of Natural Resources and John Linc Stine of the MPCA — have moved on to private sector gigs with environmental groups. Landwehr is the executive director of Save the Boundary Waters, a group actively fighting against Twin Metals. Stine is the same role for the St. Paul-based Freshwater Society, which appears to have no public stance on the projects.
The principles of these men — whether the Range and mining supporters agree with their private sector choices or not — lend a certain degree of credence to the validity of the permits. Stine said as much as he joined the Freshwater Society, telling MPR News: “Some people might think I felt one way or another way about the PolyMet decision. I viewed the system as what it is. It's right because that's what we approved. So, making the decision along the lines of those requirements, I never felt like I was making the wrong decision. I knew I was making a hard decision that people were not going to like.”
There’s a difference between not liking a decision and calling shenanigans on a decision that one doesn’t like. At the MPCA level, Stine proved himself a solid leader that followed the process laid out before his agency. PolyMet met the requirements of that process and that agency.
Reviewing the permits now is nothing more than a delay looking to undermine the work of an agency in order to reverse an unfavorable outcome. The fact that PolyMet passed the tests is unlikely to change. And that’s why, even if it costs the project a little bit of time, bringing more public viewing to the process is valuable in helping them understand the standards and procedures under which state agencies make their decisions.
Opponents of these projects aren’t going to stop the challenges, but when facts and sound science prevail in a way the general public can appreciate, those challenges will have less fire and brimstone behind them.