Is momentum turning against sulfide mining in Minnesota?

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Decision on PolyMet, bill to protect BWCAW are encouraging signs

By Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

On Monday, the Minnesota Court of Appeals dealt a breakthrough victory to tribal and environmental advocates, reversing Department of Natural Resources (DNR) permits for the PolyMet mine. The Court determined that questions about PolyMet’s safety, finances, and ownership merited more examination, and ordered the DNR to hold a contested-case hearing. This hearing, which resembles a multi-month trial, allows for significantly more scrutiny and public input on these issues. The Court also decided that the DNR had to put an end date on any permit granted to PolyMet – the previous allowed indefinite time for site cleanup and maintenance after the mine’s 20-year operation.

This decision isn’t the end of the road on PolyMet, but it lengthens the road considerably, and introduces new potential stopping points that could block the mine entirely. The decision could also make it significantly more difficult for PolyMet to secure financing for its project – previously considered the final step it needed to complete before construction commenced.

Combined with renewed scrutiny of irregularities in the Pollution Control Agency permitting process, it is becoming increasingly difficult to make the case that PolyMet’s permitting process has been objective, thorough and independent. The contested case hearing, which will last months or even longer, will offer more opportunities to raise the many legitimate shortcomings of PolyMet’s mining plans.

It has indeed taken PolyMet a long time to develop their mining plan and work it through the agency review process. But the proposal is clearly still lacking. It’s a bit like the student who spends ten years attending college – this doesn’t entitle them to a degree. And PolyMet still hasn’t produced a credible proposal that protects our air, water, and climate.

This is a major win for Minnesota’s environmental and conservation community, and we thank the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and the MEP member groups who fought this legal battle:  Minnesota Center For Environmental Advocacy, Duluth for Clean Water, Center for Biological Diversity, Save Lake Superior Association, Friends of the Cloquet Valley State Forest, Friends of the Boundary Water Wilderness, and WaterLegacy.

The fight will continue, as PolyMet is moving to appeal the Court of Appeals’ unanimous decision to the Supreme Court. It’s also attempting to block journalists from recording the proceedings next week on whether the Pollution Control Agency improperly hid EPA pollution concerns from the public while granting PolyMet its water permit.

But it’s clear that the tide is beginning to turn against sulfide mining in Minnesota. This week, Representative Betty McCollum introduced a bipartisan bill that would completely ban this type of mining in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness watershed, where the Twin Metals mine has been proposed. This bill wouldn’t affect mines like PolyMet that lie outside the watershed, and faces long odds of passing any time in the near future, but it’s an important recognition of the unique danger that copper-nickel sulfide mining presents to the tremendous freshwater resources that define our state.

Even a few months ago, it seemed as if PolyMet, and Twin Metals and other mines after it, were on an inexorable path to being constructed and forcing Minnesotans to reckon with the cost of cleanup and maintenance for generations. Thanks to committed Minnesotans speaking out, supporting legal efforts, and pressuring our political leaders, a Minnesota free of the threat of sulfide mining seems more possible.

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