PolyMet appeal headed to Supreme Court, company on the defensive on permits

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By Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Two major developments on PolyMet’s proposed copper-nickel sulfide mine in northern Minnesota were announced this week.

On Monday, the Minnesota Court of Appeals overturned the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s (MPCA) air permits for the PolyMet mine. The Court found that in its permit, the MPCA hadn’t adequately considered the increase in air pollution that would ensue from PolyMet dramatically scaling up its mining operation. PolyMet’s recent plans anticipate increasing its mining operation beyond what it stated when it applied for permits. It appears to be a case of PolyMet attempting to use the “foot-in-the-door” trick by securing a permit for a smaller scale of mining before asking for an increase, to which state agencies would be presumably more agreeable. The Court of Appeals decision requires the MPCA to revisit the initial air permits on these grounds.

Then, on Wednesday, the Minnesota Supreme Court agreed to hear PolyMet’s appeal of a January Court of Appeals decision that overturned its permit to mine and its dam safety permits. That decision requires the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to hold a public contested-case hearing on the mine’s environmental impacts before permitting for the mine can proceed.

In both cases, the causes of environmental protection and public transparency were championed by several MEP member groups and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. We thank these organizations for their superb work at protecting the health and interests of Minnesotans.

PolyMet has always been intrinsically hazardous from an environmental standpoint. Copper-nickel sulfide mining has never been conducted in Minnesota, and there is no case of it occurring in the United States without seriously polluting the surrounding environment. The sulfuric acid created when water passes over sulfide waste is lethal to organisms and can permanently pollute bodies of water. PolyMet’s plan to store this waste behind a dam is risky, unstable, and more and more dangerous due to increased precipitation from climate change.

Though PolyMet proponents have claimed that the minerals mined are needed for building a clean energy economy, the project is a major carbon threat. It would require enormous amounts of energy and destroy natural carbon sinks in Minnesota wetlands, and it’s not at all clear that we need the specific minerals the mine would extract when large quantities are available from recycling and other sources.

Though PolyMet has previously claimed numerous victories in the permitting process, those were unsurprising – the process is largely built to allow projects to move forward even if they have serious flaws, and the MPCA’s irregular action on these permits certainly didn’t help. But these hard-won legal victories show that Minnesota’s courts are willing to listen to reason and scientific evidence, and that the bad old ways of doing business may be ripe for change. For now, at least, they’re allowing us to put the brakes on PolyMet before it brings serious harm to the people, wildlife, and waters of northern Minnesota.

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