Judge recommends DNR deny PolyMet permit

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Rounding out a year in which sulfide mining plans in Minnesota have faced setback after setback, an Administrative Law Judge told the Minnesota DNR this week that it should deny the PolyMet mining project a key permit to mine.

Judge James LeFave sided with environmental groups and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in a contested case hearing, finding that the mining plan would result in too much harm to Minnesota waters. The judge found – as many organizations have argued – that PolyMet’s plan to store its mine waste would be far too polluting and hazardous.

While not a binding ruling, this recommendation to the DNR adds plenty of scientific and legal weight to the argument that Minnesota should not allow the mine to operate. It gives the DNR a chance to get it right this time and recognize that PolyMet is an unacceptable threat to the St. Louis River watershed and the people within it.

PolyMet’s path forward was already stalled earlier this year when the Army Corps of Engineer revoked its wetlands destruction permit, siding with the Fond du Lac Band’s arguments that it would violate the tribe’s water quality standards. If the DNR refuses to grant a new permit to mine, PolyMet simply cannot move forward.

These decisions, and similar setbacks to the Twin Metals mine in the Boundary Waters watershed, are signs that the legal system is beginning to recognize a fundamental truth that our agencies have avoided: sulfide ore mining is not right for Minnesota.

Sulfide ore waste produces vast quantities of sulfuric acid that poisons the landscape and surrounding waters. It’s never been done in Minnesota, and never happened anywhere in the United States without causing polluting nearby waters. In a water-rich environment like northeastern Minnesota – home to vital carbon-sequestering wetlands – such a mine would be a disaster that could threaten the health of people and wildlife for centuries.

As good as it is that the Army Corps, the EPA, and now Judge LeFave have agreed that PolyMet’s impact would be unacceptable, we can’t expect that PolyMet’s backers will throw in the towel in the long term. PolyMet, like Twin Metals, secured permits and backing from state and federal agencies at one point, and may well push to do so again. They may be willing to wait for a more sympathetic court or a more pro-sulfide mining administration in Saint Paul or Washington to try again.

Sulfide mining backers may also try to pass legislation to weaken permitting standards or undercut other water quality protections. They’ve made the false case that mining these ores is essential to the clean energy transition – it’s not, but they may use this argument to push for rollbacks to environmental protections.

In the long run, Minnesota should celebrate these good decisions to protect our water, but we can’t rely on them. We now need our legislators to step up and do their part. We need permanent protections for waters like the St. Louis River and the Boundary Waters. We need laws that make it clear to state agencies that they should not be afraid to deny permits to projects that threaten our vital water resources. And we must make sure that tribal sovereignty continues to be respected and recognized in state and federal law.

How you can take action: Use the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy’s action tool to tell Governor Walz to deny PolyMet a new permit to mine.

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