MEP joins call for state to Move On from PolyMet

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

This week, MEP joined a dozen organizations and more than one thousand individuals in signing on to the Move On from PolyMet campaign, an effort to convince the Walz Administration to cease its support for the PolyMet mine proposal.

After a winding path, the state’s permits for PolyMet – the first ever sulfide ore mine to have received permits in Minnesota – have been overturned. The Walz Administration now has to make a choice on how to respond. Given the overwhelming scientific evidence that PolyMet would irreparably harm lands and waters in Northern Minnesota, opposition to PolyMet from state leaders would go a long way to protecting people and resources.

As with the Line 3 pipeline, the DNR and Pollution Control Agency (PCA) under Governor Walz have argued that they have simply “followed the process” in permitting the mine. But the courts have found various problems with the process, including violations of state law and collusion to keep science out of the public record. The agencies now have a chance to go back to the drawing board and right the wrongs.

The unprecedented threat

Under PolyMet’s proposal, the mine would be built near Hoyt Lake in the St. Louis River Basin in an area where iron mining had previously been conducted, an area that includes a dam that stores tailings from the iron operation. In one of the most scientifically dubious parts of its proposal, PolyMet has proposed to expand and use that dam to store its own waste. That waste would include sulfide compounds, which react with water to form highly toxic sulfuric acid. A spill or overflow event from that dam would be catastrophic to ecosystems and people downstream. At the very least, it would require indefinite maintenance to keep the waste contained long after the mine has ceased operation.

There are obvious issues with allowing this type of mining to be conducted in the headwaters of Lake Superior when it has never been done without polluting the surrounding environment anywhere in the country. Downstream neighbors of the PolyMet site include the Fond du Lac Band, the Duluth area, and the Lake Superior watershed, all of which would be under threat of water contamination.

In addition, PolyMet would harm the climate and air quality of Minnesota at a time when both are extremely vulnerable. Its destruction of 930 acres of wetlands would generate a large quantity of emissions and damage one of Minnesota’s most crucial carbon sinks and habitat areas. Its industrial operation would generate significant levels of air pollution, which is at issue in the current permit controversy facing state agencies.

Because of the evident pollution issues this mine would create, PolyMet – working with Minnesota state agencies – has attempted to game the process of approval. The company tried to downplay the size of the project in order to avoid more stringent air pollution permit conditions, which resulted in the permit being sent back to state agencies by the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

On PolyMet’s behalf, the PCA worked to keep federal Environmental Protection Agency concerns about the project’s impact on water quality out of the public record to grant PolyMet smoother sailing. The EPA’s Inspector General said earlier this year that the EPA has clearly botched its oversight of the process. 

The Court of Appeals also denied PolyMet’s DNR permit to mine because it had no expiration date – in violation of state law – and because its plans to contain its waste are inadequately proven. The DNR essentially gave the company a green light, with the costs to be paid later by the people of Minnesota.

State agencies need to turn the page

As they have done with the Line 3 oil pipeline, the DNR and PCA have treated PolyMet as a client to be catered to, not considering the full scope of likely pollution that needs to be controlled, or rejecting the full proposal as warranted. The Walz Administration seems to have largely bought into the “jobs” argument made by PolyMet, despite the fact that mining is becoming increasingly automated and the pollution generated would threaten other sectors of employment.

Environmental advocates and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa have fought the agencies’ industry-oriented attitude every step of the way, in court and in the public record. Clean water and air are not resources we can take for granted, especially in this era of climate change and rampant pollution in our drinking water reserves. 

The Move on from PolyMet campaign seeks to build the case for what state agencies should have done all along – reject PolyMet’s attempts to muddy the waters in its permitting and deny the company permission to mine. The campaign welcomes further organizations and individuals to sign on and tell the Governor that, after all of PolyMet’s legal problems and shell games, it’s time to chart a new course.

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