A federal investigation into the state’s handling of a PolyMet water permit is growing in scope and could delay any public findings for many months.

The Inspector General of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that a nationwide audit of comparable water quality permits has been launched, and any findings related to PolyMet will be wrapped into the larger investigation.

A review of the permit started in June by the Inspector General after a series of memos were leaked detailing how the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency communicated with the EPA about concerns over the permit. MPCA officials have said the issues were addressed in the draft permit and released a public document comparing the EPA’s questions to revisions made in the final version.

Federal officials announced the expanded review last week in a memo from Kathlene Butler, a director in the EPA Inspector General’s office, to David Ross, the EPA’s assistant administrator for water.

“We initiated that work to determine whether the EPA followed appropriate Clean Water Act and NPDES regulations in Region 5 to review the PolyMet permit approved by Minnesota and issued in 2018,” Butler wrote in the memo. “We will incorporate the results from our work assessing the PolyMet permit review into this nationwide audit of the EPA’s NPDES permit reviews.”

NPDES, the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System, regulates pollutants such as mercury and lead that can be discharged from point sources, such as industrial plants, into lakes and streams and other bodies of water. The MPCA issued an NPDES permit to PolyMet last year.

The PolyMet permit is now subject to three separate inquiries by the EPA, Minnesota’s Legislative Auditor and Ramsey County court after environmentalists challenged the permit over potential irregularities in handling comments by federal and state regulators.

Those potential irregularities stem from the MPCA asking the EPA to not submit written comments on the permit during the public comment period. Instead, the two regulatory agencies discussed concerns over the phone and in meetings. Those calls and meetings were not open to public, but a memo leaked earlier this year that showed 29 of the EPA concerns over the permit.

In August, the Minnesota Court of Appeals took the unusual step of putting the disputed PolyMet permit on hold pending a District Court investigation of “irregularities” during the permitting process.

The MPCA maintains that the permit is valid and said the agency is taking steps to increase its transparency. PolyMet has also expressed confidence in the permit, stating it is ready to build Minnesota’s first-ever copper-nickel mine.

The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, which is opposing the project and is at the center of much of the legal action against the permit, said the expanding federal investigation signals something was found in the initial investigation.

The Inspector General did not publicize any findings related to the permit.

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