Tuesday, January 14, 2020

MN mine permit nixed. Look closely for the WI connections.

Cathy Stepp is leaving her Midwest EPA managerial position while loyal sidekick Kurt Thiede inherits a Minnesota mining permit mess that's getting stickier.

Begin with big environmental news on Monday from Minnesota as reported in the Duluth News-Tribune, here.
Court of Appeals reverses key PolyMet permits, orders DNR to hold contested-case hearing
The Minnesota Court of Appeals on Monday reversed key mining permits for PolyMet, the company trying to open the state's first copper-nickel mine.
In a 36-page decision released Monday morning, the court sent the dam safety permits and permit to mine awarded by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resource to PolyMet in late 2018 back to the DNR and said the agency must hold a contested case hearing, which would require an administrative law judge to examine additional evidence and testimony on the project. Then, with information from the contested-case hearing in hand, the DNR must decide whether to reissue the permits. 
But nearly at the bottom of a more-than-20-paragraph story, there are these important few lines - -
Separately, PolyMet's national pollutant discharge elimination system, or NPDES, permit, which regulates water discharged from industrial activities, remains on hold after an August order by the Minnesota Court of Appeals after it was revealed the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency requested the Environmental Protection Agency refrain from commenting on a PolyMet draft water permit until the public comment period ended.
And at final highlighted "refrain from commenting," we see this - - 
EPA Union: Leaked email from MPCA [Minnesota Pollution Control Agency] suppressed EPA's PolyMet concerns
The American Federation of Government Employees Local 704, which represents the EPA’s Region 5 employees in Minnesota, sent news organizations a copy of an email sent by then-MPCA Assistant Commissioner Shannon Lotthammer to EPA Region Chief of Staff Kurt Thiede on May 13, 2018. In the email, Lotthammer asked Thiede and the EPA to wait on commenting on a PolyMet draft permit until the public comment period ended....
“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,” Nicole Cantello, president of AFGE Local 70, said in a news release accompanying the leaked email. “This suppression is completely inappropriate and allowed those comments to remain secret.”
The Kurt Thiede referenced is the same Kurt Thiede just appointed to lead the EPA's Region 5 office after his boss, former WI DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp 

Wisconsin DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp proudly shows off her first deer, taken opening weekend last year. In the upcoming TV Special "Deer Hunt Wisconsin 2012, Stepp urges male hunters to take more girls and women hunting. "The secret's out," she says. "Hunting is a lot of fun, so don't keep it to yourselves."  photo courtesy of Wisconsin DNR
announced her resignation from the EPA a few days ago. 

I'd noted the uproar over the Minnesota mine and the manipulation of the comment process in a recent post about how Trump's EPA was upending clean water protections:
Consider this piece about the Boundary Waters mining permit: 
Stepp’s chief of staff, Kurt Thiede, who previously worked for her in Wisconsin, was asked in the Minnesota review to stall submitting written comments from the EPA on the proposed mine until after the period for submitting public comments had ended. That move in effect made those comments secret until environmental groups sued....
Kevin Pierard, a senior official in the EPA’s Chicago office, told Minnesota regulators that the proposed permit didn’t have numeric limits on how much pollution could be in discharges from the mine. He also said the discharges would exceed federal health and aquatic life standards for mercury, copper, arsenic, cadmium and zinc.
Pierard’s comments were read over the phone to Minnesota regulators so they wouldn’t appear in the official record, a move former EPA attorney Jeffry Fowley said was “seriously improper conduct.” Fowley said the permit is “an end-run around the … requirements of the Clean Water Act.”
Bottom line: Stepp is headed for Missouri while Thiede could be settling into an even more fraught election-season hot seat. This report by journalist Gary Wilson sets the table for Midwest and national writers: 
A change in leadership at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes office in Chicago won’t change the agency’s direction. 
That was affirmed last week by EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler in a letter to EPA staff obtained by Great Lakes Now. Wheeler’s letter announced that Kurt Thiede will replace Cathy Stepp as EPA Region 5 administrator.


Sisco said...

I have had professional interaction with Kurt Thiede in regards to Lake Superior Fishery issues in the past, and am glad he will be involved. I found him to be competent, prepared, thorough, and having a very balanced perspective. This is amvery serious issue, and I feel much better having Mr. Thiede involved then Cathy Stepp. My advice is voice your concerns to Kurt and make every effort to work with he and his staff. He is a very fair man.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you had a good experience with Kurt Thiede. As a DNR staff person I did not. He followed Stepp's lead in everything and she always, always, referred to him as "My Kurt." It was unprofessional and repulsive.

Anonymous said...

It is clear that people high up in the EPA and Minnesota DNR knowingly and purposely engaged in circumventing normal records practice with respect to the comments about the national permit. Doing things like this has been a chronic practice with EPA Region 5 and Wisconsin DNR for many years. This is why when you go to the DNR and ask to see "the file" on a particular matter you can well be sure that you are not seeing the whole story of what has gone on, is currently going on and what is planned to go on in the future. It has also been chronic that certain "troublesome" documents will spend most of their time not in "the file" but rather in a "can't be found/misfiled" condition. Things just "magically" come and go from "the file" especially when an issue is receiving a good deal of public attention.