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Legal challenge over MPCA-issued PolyMet permit begins

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ST. PAUL, MN — Tuesday marked day one of testimony as environmental groups challenge the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) in Ramsey County District Court over a permit the agency issued to PolyMet. 

While Tuesday’s hearing was about a PolyMet permit, the project wasn’t the focus of arguments or testimony. It was the MPCA’s handling of a key permit it issued to the copper and nickel mining company that was called into question. 

A courtroom full of lawyers representing a number of environmental groups, the MPCA, PolyMet, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began their arguments Tuesday morning. 

This is a fact-finding hearing into allegations that the MPCA tried to hide concerns by the EPA about the project's risks. 

Chief Judge John Guthmann, who is overseeing the case, made it clear - arguments had to be focused around alleged procedural irregularities by the MPCA and nothing more. 

Lawyers representing environmental groups focused on previous pattern and practice of the MPCA in the handling of certain permits in hopes of proving there was motive in the allegations that the agency tried to hide comments from concerned EPA employees. 

"This case is about efforts that the PCA undertook to withhold records from the administrative record. They knew it would be part of any legal challenge coming down road," said a spokesperson representing environmental groups.

Meanwhile, the MPCA’s team argued the agency did not get rid of or try to hide, documents that they were legally obligated to keep. 

“That is what’s required for the administrative record and that is something the MPCA did, in fact, preserve," said an MPCA representative.

The first witness of the hearing was Kevin Pierard, a former employee of the EPA who worked directly with regulatory agencies, including the MPCA. 

Pierard testified for about five hours Tuesday via video conference. He explained his recollection of conversations surrounding the MPCA and its protocol in the issuing of permits. 

Pierard is one of many witnesses expected to be called to testify for the hearing, which is expected to last five to 10 days. 

At that point, the judge will prepare findings that the Minnesota Court of Appeals will consider as it weighs a broader legal challenge to a water quality permit the state-issued for the project in 2018. 

Reporter Anthony Matt

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