ST. PAUL — The effort to delay the advancement of Minnesota's first copper-nickel mining project gained steam Wednesday, July 24, as 18 Democratic state lawmakers urged Gov. Tim Walz to drop permits for the project.

In a letter to the governor, the legislators highlighted recent reports that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency failed to address concerns from the EPA about the mine and processing plant set to be built near Hoyt Lakes and Babbitt and agents acted to keep those concerns out of the public record.

The lawmakers urged Walz and his administration to suspend the permits and require PolyMet to rewrite its permit applications. They also suggested that the state require a health impact statement about the project and ask PolyMet to put down a down payment that could serve as a security deposit in the event clean up is needed around the mine site.

"We need to recognize that this flawed process resulted in flawed permits," the lawmakers wrote in the letter. "The scandal at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) over EPA concerns related to PolyMet certainly has the appearance of a cover-up. There is no good explanation for the MPCA telling EPA scientists and engineers — who are responsible for protecting our waters — to refrain from sending their detailed concerns in writing."

The effort to influence the Democratic governor comes two days after a coalition of environmental groups urged Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison to investigate whether PolyMet — the company heading the mining project — adequately represented its relationship with Glencore, a Swiss mining company that recently became PolyMet's majority shareholder. Ellison said he was looking into their concerns.

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Bruce Richardson, a spokesman for PolyMet, said these efforts were the latest in the campaign to derail the mining project.

"PolyMet has spent the last 13 years diligently following and complying with every required state and federal science-based process to legally permit and operate a mine," Richardson said in a statement. "We have demonstrated that this project meets all state and federal environmental standards."

The lawmakers in their letter point to a recently released EPA memo, first shared with the Star Tribune, which showed the federal agency continued to urge the MPCA to set stiffer standards on its water permit for PolyMet up until two days before the permit was issued.

EPA PolyMet memo December 2018 by Jimmy Lovrien on Scribd

Walz last week said his administration was reviewing the permits to assure their validity.

"We’re putting a critical eye on it because I do think it raises important questions,” Walz told Forum News Service. "It’s certainly not our role to arbitrarily either grant or to pull permits but to be making sure that we’re seeing that they’re done in a fair manner. ... We have to ensure to the public that they can trust the process and they can trust that the permits were issued with the best science, followed the process and followed the law. And I think the questions that are being raised certainly are valid and they need to be explored.”

The EPA's Office of the Inspector General and the Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor are probing how the EPA's comments were handled as part of the application process. And the state Court of Appeals has cited "procedural irregularities" in the permitting process as it sent the case back to a district court for a hearing.

Additionally, the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission is investigating Glencore, the majority shareholder in PolyMet, for alleged corrupt practices, and the Justice Department subpoenaed Glencore for alleged money laundering and possible corruption.

State Sens. John Marty, Jerry Newton, Richard Cohen, Jim Carlson, Patricia Torres Ray, Steve Cwodzinski, Sandy Pappas, Carolyn Laine, and Reps. Kelly Morrison, Steve Sandell, Alice Hausman, Mohamud Noor, Alice Mann, Heather Edelson, Mary Kunesh-Podein, Connie Bernardy, Tina Liebling and Jim Davnie signed onto the letter to Walz.

Minnesota House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, pointed to the yearslong permitting process involved in approving the PolyMet project and said it should move forward, not be stalled again by a suspended permit.

"There’s no reason to believe that we haven’t gotten it right and that today it has met all its requirements," Daudt said. "And it should move forward but, unfortunately, Democrats don’t support mining, and they’re going to do whatever they can to stop it."

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said further delays would only "prevent good jobs and much-needed materials to power the world from moving forward."

The Democrats who signed onto the letter Wednesday represented predominantly Twin Cities Metro and southern Minnesota districts. Many Iron Range Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, have traditionally favored the project but didn't immediately respond to the letter.