John Linc Stine & Cathy Stepp selfie from a 2018 Great Lakes Commission confab the week before the communication about spiking the EPA staff comments
by Steve Timmer
Oct 27, 2019, 12:00 PM

Shannon Lotthammer: We don’t know where all that mercury is coming from

I wrote a Community Voices piece for MinnPost that was published on October 18th. It told the story of how after many years of fits and starts, and with the help of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, back when it was in the environmental protection business in 2012, a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) study was begun for the St. Louis River. One of the important parties to the study was the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. It is sometimes called “the mercury study,” but it was intended to catalogue multiple pollutants to the St. Louis and figure out where they came from, both point sources, including NPDES permit holders and others, and nonpoint sources. All with a view to figuring out how to bring the stream as a whole into compliance with the Clean Water Act.

The St. Louis River, which runs through the Fond du Lac Band’s reservation on its way to Lake Superior, has been an impaired stream for a very long time; in other words, it doesn’t meet Clean Water Act standards. It has a fish advisory which severely limits fish consumption from the river, which is an especial problem for the Fond du Lac Band.

The TMDL was good news for the river, the Fond du Lac Band, the city of Duluth, and Lake Superior. But as the MinnPost story relates, the MPCA pulled out of the study in the spring of 2013. John Linc Stine, then the Commissioner of the MPCA (where have we heard his name before?) announced the decision, saying that the science just wasn’t good enough to do the study. The Fond du Lac Band, and the rest of the environmental community as well, were stunned. And outraged.

According to the Congressional Research Service, even as of 2012, thousands of TMDLs were conducted every year, pursuant to Section 303 (d) of the Clean Water Act. And although the MPCA’s TMDL file has never really been dusted for fingerprints (meaning, among other things, talking to a lot of people under oath in sweaty deposition rooms), many people suspected that there were things other than Commissioner Stine’s “concern for science” at work here, and that other people were involved, too, namely the mining interests — including PolyMet — and Range legislators.

I personally think you’d be a naif to believe they weren’t.

If you were following the PolyMet permitting story, you would also know that this was at about the same time that it really got cranking; the following winter, the permitting agencies, including the MPCA, held a series of debutante balls for PolyMet that resembled the Boat Show more than anything else: regulators in plaid jackets hawking pontoon boats. I’ve never asked (I should have), but I’ve always wondered, who paid for these extravaganzas?

Was it PolyMet, with all the regulators appearing like so many Billy Mays, pitching PolyMet at the top of their lungs? Or did we, the taxpayers, pay for these transparent sales conventions?

– o O o –

Let’s see. Where was I?

With the TMDL project safely interred, it increased the range of freedom of the MPCA to issue a water discharge permit for PolyMet in 2018 that cared not a whit for the things that a TMDL study might – who are we kidding? would – have found. The mines that produce mercury and the Cohasset power plant that provides power for them, just for example. Or that the St. Louis watershed needed another mercury-producing mine, especially a copper mine, like it needed a hole in the head.

In fact, the MPCA felt so unfettered that it issued a water discharge permit that did not have any water-quality based limitation for several heavy metals, including mercury, according to the EPA whistleblower Jeffry Fowley:

The final permit continues to fail to have any water quality based permit limits for mercury, copper, arsenic, cadmium and zinc, or any other pollutants, [including, I suppose, sulfides] contrary to the April 2018 recommendations from the EPA.

These are the comments, of course, that Assistant MPCA Commissioner Shannon Lotthammer and Commissioner John Linc Stine persuaded Cathy Stepp, a Trump appointee and administrator at Region 5 of the EPA, to suppress.

– o O o –

What is extra annoying to me about all of this is that after the TMDL was shivved by the MPCA, people like Assistant MPCA Commissioner Shannon Lotthammer continued to express mystification about where all of this mercury was coming from and why you can’t eat the fish out the St. Louis River. From a 2016 article at the Minnesota Public Radio website:

According to the state pollution control agency, that effort [to reduce coal-fired power plant mercury emissions], combined with international pollution reduction efforts — most of Minnesota’s mercury comes from around the country and around the world — should eventually lower the level of mercury in most of Minnesota’s water bodies enough so that fish in them can be eaten safely once a week. [Once a week! Swell. Catch and release fishing will still be a life-saving exercise.]

But in 10 percent of the state’s waterways, including the St. Louis River, mercury levels in fish are so exceptionally high that they will fail to achieve lower mercury levels despite reduced air emissions.

Scientists still aren’t exactly sure why mercury levels in waters like the St. Louis are so much higher than elsewhere.

It could be a lot of thing, fluctuating water levels, who knows? said Sharon Lotthammer.

If most of our mercury comes from around the country and around the world, how is it that the St. Louis River watershed won the mercury lottery? Just bad luck? Or maybe a teeny, tiny jetstream that drops mercury just into the St. Louis? We all know, really, that it is because that watershed is mining’s sewer.

This is the greatest case of studied, intentional ignorance I’ve ever seen.

– o O o –

I read a part of the record from the MPCA on the consideration of the TMDL study in preparation of the MinnPost story I referred to earlier. There were a couple of names that surfaced multiple times: the aforementioned Shannon Lotthammer and Steve Colvin, kind of the project manager for PolyMet at the Land and Minerals Division of the Department of Natural Resources. (This Division sees itself explicitly as in the business of promoting mining.) Both Lotthammer and Colvin are at the DNR now; Lotthammer became an Assistant DNR Commissioner in the Walz administration, moving over from the MPCA.

I thought it would be great to talk to them about the story I wrote. So I sent an email to the DNR’s chief spokesperson, Chris Niskanen:

Mr. Niskanen,

A piece that I wrote for MinnPost was published yesterday, Friday, October 18th. Perhaps you‘ve seen it.

In examining the record to prepare this piece, two names cropped up multiple times: Sharon Lotthammer and Steve Colvin. I know that Ms. Lotthammer is currently employed at the DNR and Mr. Colvin probably continues to be as well.

I would like to interview these individuals and would be happy to come to the DNR offices to do it. Will you make them available for an interview?

Thanking you in advance for your anticipated cooperation, I remain, very truly yours, Steve

Here’s the reply I got:

Hi Steve,

Thanks for your interest in this high-profile project. We receive many interview requests from commentators such as yourself and, unfortunately, we are not able to accommodate them. I’d be happy to point to any materials that might be useful to you on our website.



I should mention that I have fenced with Chris Niskanen multiple times about PolyMet. There is a seething undercurrent to this exchange, and you can only enjoy it if you know that.

But apparently, Lotthammer and Colvin are so busy giving interviews that they can’t get their work done. As an aside, we aren’t sure what Sharon Lotthammer’s job at the DNR actually is; it may be the Assistant Commissioner for Staying Out of Trouble, or Staying out of Sight.

If you can find me a published interview given by Lotthammer or Colvin after say, March of 2019, though, I’ll give you a cookie. In fact, I’ll give you a box of cookies. Girl Scout cookies. The best kind.

The agencies have circled the wagons.

– o O o –

If there is the smallest amount of trial lawyer blood coursing through your veins, you dream about taking the depositions of people like Shannon Lotthammer, John Linc Stine, Steve Colvin and his boss Jess Richards, and their former boss Tom Landwehr. (And a few people at EPA, too.) None of them has faced the great engine of truth, cross examination, about PolyMet. And boy oh boy, they should.

It could happen, of course. It’s up to the Court of Appeals. The Court is trying to figure what to do with the cases it heard last Wednesday, concerning the still-stayed dam safety permits and the permit to mine. It has also stayed the odious water discharge permit earlier and sent that case to the Ramsey County District Court to make a record on “permitting irregularities.” From an earlier story here:

Well, it is great [the district court hearing], except that the district court has a blinkered view of what the case is about. According to the district court, the parties objecting to the permit (the “Relators”) can only ask a few “written deposition questions” of a few people — none of whom are the four MPCA and EPA leaders identified above — and request a limited number of documents, which is odd because the Court of Appeals picked up on the fact that something was pretty seriously amiss just from reading the newspapers. No actual depositions of anybody are allowed.

Exercising my jurisdiction as a non-voting, non-member of the Court of Appeals, I’d order plenary discovery in all the cases of all the stayed permits: document production and searching deposition of anybody anywhere near this fan dance of corruption, this fourteen years of bullshit.

Treating these cases remotely like cases of ordinary administrative law would be a titanic mistake.

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