News organizations will be allowed to have cameras in the courtroom next week at a hearing on the handling of a key environmental permit for PolyMet Mining Corp., a judge has ruled.

The decision, handed down Friday by Ramsey County District Judge John Guthmann, rejects PolyMet’s request to ban news cameras and recording equipment at the evidentiary hearing, where witnesses will be questioned about allegations that state and federal regulators mishandled a permit for the company’s proposed copper-nickel mine in northern Minnesota.

Guthmann issued the ruling Friday afternoon without going into depth about his reasoning. He said he would allow one video camera, one still camera and one audio recording device.

Six news outlets from Duluth to the Twin Cities, including the Star Tribune, had filed notice with the court requesting such access. PolyMet filed an objection Wednesday, prompting the Star Tribune and MinnPost, the online newspaper, to file a joint memo challenging PolyMet’s request. KSTP TV also filed a response.

PolyMet argued that the proceedings could be “misconstrued” by news organizations, and that recordings could result in “grandstanding and attempts to create viral media moments.”

In a memo filed early Friday, the Star Tribune and MinnPost said PolyMet’s “objection is based entirely on speculative, conclusory — even illogical — assertions that could be made in every [court] case. PolyMet has not identified a single, legitimate reason why it or this matter deserve special treatment.”

Minnesota court rules grant exceptions to the general ban on cameras and recorders in courtrooms; one permits judges to allow such technology “for the presentation of evidence, for the perpetuation of a record or for other purposes of judicial administration in civil proceedings.”

The hearing will start Tuesday in Ramsey County civil court and is expected to last five to 10 days.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals last summer ordered the hearing after environmental advocacy groups accused the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of colluding to suppress concerns EPA scientists raised about PolyMet’s water-quality permit.

Critics of the proposed $1 billion mining project said the scientists’ concerns were withheld from the permit’s written public record. Internal documents obtained by the Star Tribune appear to support that claim.

MPCA officials have said the handling of the permit was routine, with procedures spelled out in a longstanding memo of understanding between their office and the EPA.

They said that, even though the EPA concerns were communicated by phone rather than in writing, Minnesota ultimately made changes in the final permit.

Nonetheless, the hearing is expected to attract wide attention because it will throw a spotlight on the state’s ability to regulate perhaps the greatest environmental challenge in a generation, the prospect of a boom in copper-nickel mining on the state’s Iron Range.

Conservationists have noted that so-called “hard rock” mining poses environmental risks that are much more grave than those of the state’s incumbent taconite industry, and they have argued that the state’s existing mining laws are inadequate to regulate the new industry.

In addition, the episode has drawn national attention after a federal whistleblower in Boston, a retired EPA attorney, filed a complaint with the agency saying the permit’s handling was highly unusual.

The EPA’s inspector general subsequently opened an investigation into the episode, and U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, a Minnesota Democrat and prominent environmentalist, has questioned the EPA’s behavior.

“… A complete, incontrovertible recording of the proceedings is the best way to ensure accurate reports about them,” said the Star Tribune/MinnPost memo. “… The public has an inherent interest in how controversies — even purely private disputes — are resolved by taxpayer-funded courts. That interest is at its zenith where the controversy involves broad public concerns that could have lasting effects on the local environment and population.”

Scrutiny of the regulators’ performance is particularly intense because PolyMet is seen as just the first of several multinational mining concerns eyeing the Duluth Complex, a large untapped mineral resource running through northeast Minnesota.

PolyMet is now majority owned by Switzerland-based mining conglomerate Glencore.

A second company, Twin Metals Minnesota, wants to build an underground copper-nickel mine just outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. A subsidiary of Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, Twin Metals recently filed its official mine plan with the state, kicking off its own yearslong permitting process.

 

Staff writer Jennifer Bjorhus contributed to this report.