MN momentum is for clean water, not sulfide mines

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

At times, it has seemed like Minnesota would soon see copper-nickel sulfide mining projects breaking ground near our most vulnerable waters, destroying climate-critical wetlands and threatening communities and ecosystems with centuries of pollution. This week is not one of those times.

Clean water advocates scored a tremendous victory this week as the federal Department of the Interior canceled federal mineral leases held by Twin Metals, which has proposed a copper-nickel sulfide mine near Ely in the Boundary Waters watershed. This cancellation restores an Obama Administration decision not to renew the leases that was itself reversed by the Trump Administration, and likely means that Twin Metals has been stopped in its tracks.

Meanwhile, Minnesota’s other major sulfide mining project saw yet another one of its permits overturned in court. Environmental and tribal advocates scored a partial victory by sending PolyMet’s water pollution permit back to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) for a do-over. Similar legal decisions have continued to delay other state PolyMet permits on wetland destruction, air quality, and other issues. Time and again, advocates have proven that neither PolyMet nor state agencies have conducted an adequate process to protect the waters downstream in the Lake Superior watershed.

The backers of this new type of uniquely hazardous type of mining in Minnesota have plenty of financial resources to continue throwing at this fight. But they’re in the minority: most Minnesotans agree that it’s time to move on from PolyMet, and a strong majority oppose any new mines near the Boundary Waters.

Nor do the scientific facts support the project. No sulfide mine in the United States has ever operated and been closed without significant pollution to the surrounding environment. PolyMet’s own plans admit that its waste storage would require decades or centuries of maintenance to prevent a catastrophic spill that could devastate downstream communities, the St. Louis River and Lake Superior watershed.

Public opinion and sound science haven’t yet overridden the tired habit in regulatory agencies to treat industries as their customers and their projects as inevitabilities. But the tides are turning, and the public interest may just have a real chance for victory.

Twin Metals could be finished

It’s hard to overstate how important the cancellation of Twin Metals’ mineral leases is for the fate of the project and similar proposals near the Boundary Waters. Coupled with a proposed ban on sulfide ore mining on federal lands in the watershed, it’s hard to see how this problem-riddled industry can keep moving. Congressional leaders like Representative Betty McCollum are working to enact permanent Boundary Waters protections at the federal level. A similar bill addressing state lands was introduced last year by Representative Kelly Morrison and Senator Steve Cwodzinski.

Meanwhile, Twin Metals has vowed to fight the Biden Administration’s decision, and its backers have cast the lease cancellation as a “political” move – a descriptor that apparently didn’t apply in 2019 when the Trump Administration did the reverse. But if trends continue the way they are, they’ll continue to learn that they aren’t entitled to endanger the Boundary Waters, no matter how much greenwashing they carry on with.

Minnesotans continue standing against PolyMet

PolyMet presents similar dangers as Twin Metals, but is further along in its process and has won more support from state leaders, including Governor Walz. Throughout the permitting of the mine, it’s been frustrating but unsurprising to watch the DNR and MPCA continue to shape the process favorably toward PolyMet, even suppressing public input and EPA concerns. The agencies have treated the mine’s unprecedented environmental hazards as boxes to check, not as reasons to halt the project.

Minnesotans aren’t simply accepting the agencies’ timidity. Thousands of Minnesotans, as well as organizations like MEP and allies around the country, are calling on Governor Walz to Move on from PolyMet. Many even showed up to the Capitol on Tuesday (possibly the coldest day of this winter) to help deliver the petition to the Governor.

On Wednesday, a coalition of environmental groups and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa filed suits challenging the federal land swap that paved the way for PolyMet. A similar lawsuit was dismissed three years ago, but the coalition led by MEP member Center for Biological Diversity filed once again, arguing that new wildlife developments covered by the Endangered Species Act prove increased danger from the mine. If the land exchange is overturned, it could be a similarly crushing blow to PolyMet as the lease cancellation is for Twin Metals.

The road ahead

As part of another strategy moving forward to protect our water and communities from all sulfide mining, more and more lawmakers are also getting behind a Prove It First law for Minnesota. This would require any company attempting to build a sulfide mine in Minnesota to prove that a similar mine has operated for ten years and closed for ten years elsewhere in the United States without causing pollution. A similar law was on the books in Wisconsin for almost two decades. The bill’s momentum and widespread support can result in additional protections for Minnesota waters.

It’s true that we’re nowhere near the end of the sulfide mining debate in Minnesota. Mining companies will continue to claim, disingenuously, that their wetland-destroying mines are needed to fight climate change. PolyMet will continue using the processes and institutions designed to regulate it to its advantage. If any sulfide mine is built in Minnesota, it could pave the way for more, leading to compounded environmental problems.

But we’ve found that the reason these mines still haven’t been built after years of process, the reason that their backers continue to greenwash, is that Minnesotans value our water, air, and land. The more that people learn the dirty details of these mines, the less likely they are to support them. With that knowledge in mind, the legal advocates, tribal leaders, independent scientists, and volunteers engaged in this fight have never given up. That persistence is what wins victories like the ones we saw this week.

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