Why 2022 could be a critical year for the controversial PolyMet mining project in northern Minnesota

Every year brings new developments for PolyMet Mining’s controversial copper and nickel mining proposals in northeastern Minnesota, but it can sometimes feel like nothing ever changes.

The project first entered the environmental assessment and approval process in 2005, when George W. Bush was president and Tim Pawlenty was governor of Minnesota. Now, 17 years later, aspects of the mine’s plan and its permits are still being investigated or challenged in court to see if PolyMet would risk contaminating Minnesota’s water, air and habitats.

Still, a few important milestones are approaching in 2022 that could address some crucial questions about mine permits, though other aspects of the project may still be challenged. This year “could really be a kind of watershed year for the project,” said Bruce Richardson, a spokeswoman for PolyMet.

Where things stand

If built, PolyMet’s open mines near Hoyt Lakes and Babbit would be the first of its kind in Minnesota. While Minnesota has a long history of extracting iron ore and taconite, there are no mines to extract copper, nickel, cobalt, palladium, platinum and gold as PolyMet would.

Such mining involves risks that taconite mining does not, primarily from toxic by-products of the mining process that can damage water and will require treatment and maintenance of the site – potentially for decades or even hundreds of years. PolyMet’s proposed mine is located in St. The Louis River watershed, which flows into Lake Superior, and its potential dangers have sparked opposition from environmentally friendly nonprofits as well as the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

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Meanwhile, PolyMet and supporters say their mining techniques, water treatment and waste recycling plans will meet environmental standards and even improve water quality in the area.

The company, which is primarily owned by Swiss mining giant Glencore, promises that the $ 1 billion project will bring 360 direct jobs to the region and more than 600 indirect jobs after construction. Supporters also claim that the metals can be used to help power green technology such as electric car batteries.

PolyMet spokeswoman Bruce Richardson

MinnPost Photo by Walker Orenstein

PolyMet spokesman Bruce Richardson shows a map of the company’s land near Hoyt Lakes at its mine headquarters.

By 2019, PolyMet had received all the state and federal permits needed to mine for 20 years, but several important permits needed for the project have been suspended or revoked by the courts following legal challenges.

The four lawsuits

There are four major unresolved challenges associated with the PolyMet mine:

• One of these challenges is related to the project’s Permit to Mine, a permit approved by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which was reversed by the Minnesota Supreme Court in April. Opponents of PolyMet had sued over several aspects of the mine, including the type of tailings dam that will contain debris from the project. The Supreme Court of Minnesota stood with PolyMet and DNR on many issues, but agreed with environmental groups on other controversial points.

First, the court said that DNR had to set a fixed deadline for PolyMet’s permit. PolyMet’s permit to mine states that planned mining and recycling activities will be carried out around 2072, although long-term maintenance and “active water treatment” will continue indefinitely until the state’s mine closure rules are met and the need for maintenance ceases. That DNR argued that an indefinite permit would allow the length to be based on the mine’s environmental performance and prevent the company from waiting until its permit expired and walk away from liability. PolyMet models show that “post-closure maintenance” is likely to be necessary for at least 200 years, the Supreme Court ruling says.

The DNR is still deciding how best to write an end date for the permit and plans to get public input on what they will decide at some point in the future, according to a spokeswoman for the agency.

The court also said that the DNR should hold what is known as a “contested hearing” – a litigation-like procedure before an administrative court judge intended to sort through controversial issues – whether the company’s plan to use bentonite, a clay sealant, in its tailings dam as an important pollution prevention strategy would be effective. No date has been set for the start of the contested proceedings, as the judge is still determining the scope, process and time of the case.

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• PolyMet opponents are also suing state regulators for a water pollution permit granted by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Environmental groups and the Fond du Lac Band have made a number of allegations in the lawsuits, including that the limits on pollution such as mercury and heavy metals set by the MPCA cannot be properly enforced. A decision in the Minnesota Court of Appeals is expected by January 25th.

• In June, the Federal Environmental Protection Agency told the state of Wisconsin and the Fond du Lac Band that it was deriving from PolyMet can affect their water quality. The action was required by the Clean Water Act, and as a result, both jurisdictions could object to a federal “Section 404” permit previously granted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and request a hearing on the matter. In response, the Fond du Lac Band – which had already sued the EPA in a federal court over the issue – has asked for a hearing, while Wisconsin has not. The 404 permit is linked to construction-related damage to wetlands, including the discharge of excavated material and filling material into water. No date has been set for the hearing yet, though Richardson, PolyMet’s spokesman, said he expects it to be earlier rather than later this year.

• Finally, in July, the Court of Appeal asked the MPCA to review parts of an air emission permit. Environmental groups accused PolyMet of applying for a “sham” permit for emissions from a smaller mine when they plan to expand later. A larger mine would probably need a stricter air permit. In December, however, the MPCA confirmed the permits, saying in an agency order that there was not enough evidence to prove that PolyMet asked for the smaller permit “in bad faith.”

“The existence of potential expansion scenarios and disagreements over project economics do not show that PolyMet has knowingly submitted false and misleading information,” the written order states.

Agency spokeswoman Darin Broton said that if PolyMet were to expand, which is something they have mentioned as an option, they would either have to change their license or seek a new one. JT Haines, program director for Northeast Minnesota for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, said his nonprofit advocacy group “very likely” will appeal to the new MPCA results.

The big picture

Richardson, the PolyMet spokesman, said in some ways that PolyMet has made progress toward its goal of construction. There were initially more than 20 lawsuits challenging disputes or the project, though many of them were consolidated into 11 overall cases. Of those, six have reached what Richardson said was a final conclusion in the company’s favor.

Richardson said PolyMet hopes the rest of the cases can be resolved by 2022. Some legal challenges may even continue as the company moves forward with construction or mining, Richardson said. “We are down towards the end,” he said.

Still, the remaining cases are tied to crucial permits, and the company has repeatedly had permits overturned or put on hold in the courts amid challenges from opponents of the project. “Basically, we are in 2022, where we were in 2021,” Haines of the MCEA said. “The company does not have a legal permit to proceed, and all the major permits are still suspended, remanded in custody or otherwise suspended and still at stake in the courts. … How these cases unfold in 2022, I do not think anyone can claim to know for sure. ”

While environmental groups are challenging PolyMet in court and in the state, if it allows it, they are also urging Governor Tim Walz and his agencies to drop the project altogether. Paula Maccabee, an attorney for the environmental group WaterLegacy, who was a plaintiff in the Permit to Mine and MPCA water permit case, said the project should never have been approved and should never be built. The more she learns about PolyMet’s tailings dam construction – and the more she learns about the plan to use bentonite to prevent mine pollution – the more worried she has become. “My question really is to the state authorities and to the governor: How bad does this project have to be in order for you to finally pull the plug?” said Maccabee.

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The MCEA has launched a new advocacy campaign called Proceed from PolyMet. Haines said a “new reality took shape in 2021”, where permits were left with state agencies for the first time since Walz was elected, and these agencies now have a “new opportunity to take a new approach to the PolyMet issue and address some of these shortcomings. ”

“We really want to see the governor recognize the problems that are not going away, you know, enough is enough and help set a new direction that would actually be safe for our community,” Haines said.

The project retains broad support from elected Republicans and some elected DFLs, as well as business groups and unions. However, there is also a contingent of Democratic lawmakers who are against the project.

If PolyMet ever gets all the permits it needs, the company will still have to fund the construction of the mine. Richardson said that while the deep pockets of Glencore could be a “potential party to funding” and is very supportive of the project, it is “not given.”

Richardson said the PolyMet mine would come as Walz and President Joe Biden have “high targets for electric vehicles and for renewable energy, wind turbines, wind farms, solar parks and the like.” All metals from PolyMet would be raw materials sold on a world market, Richardson said, meaning they could not promise the need for domestic green technology at this time.

Yet Richardson said “these metals that we produce are truly crucial to not only modern society, but crucial to these goals of clean energy and climate change and our own security.”

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