Tipsters, PolyMet probe spur broad audit of EPA permitting

By Corbin Hiar | 09/06/2019 01:12 PM EDT

EPA’s Office of Inspector General is launching a nationwide review of the agency’s water quality permitting efforts, a move that suggests the internal watchdog may have already uncovered problems with oversight of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System.

"This audit is the result of hotline complaints and is based, in part, on work we initiated" regarding EPA input on the controversial NPDES permit issued to PolyMet Mining Corp. in 2018, an IG official said yesterday in a letter to David Ross, EPA’s water chief.

The IG’s "objective for this audit is to determine whether the EPA’s reviews of state-proposed NPDES permits verify that the permits adhere to Clean Water Act requirements," the letter said. Such permits are required for all point sources that discharge pollutants to waters of the United States.


EPA didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the watchdog’s new review.

PolyMet is seeking to build the first-ever copper-nickel mine in Minnesota. The Toronto-based company says the massive open-pit mine would create 360 full-time jobs and operate for 20 years.

But environmentalists and some Democratic politicians have raised concerns about the PolyMet proposal because it would destroy nearly 1,000 acres of wetlands in the headwaters of the St. Louis River, the largest tributary of Lake Superior.

The IG’s PolyMet probe was initiated earlier this year after the watchdog received complaints about its NPDES permit from former EPA attorney Jeffry Fowley and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Any contaminated water that leaks from the mine would flow through the Fond du Lac reservation and Duluth, the biggest city in northern Minnesota.

Fowley, who’s now a Boston College law professor, accused leaders of EPA’s Region 5 of suppressing agency staff’s concerns and only allowing staffers to read their comments over the phone to officials at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (E&E News PM, June 13).

Last month, the Minnesota Court of Appeals put Polymet’s mine plan on hold and asked a state district court to consider "alleged procedural irregularities related to the grant" of the water quality permit, the three-judge panel wrote.