PolyMet permit pause may signal turning tide on sulfide mining

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Last week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers suspended a key permit for the PolyMet sulfide ore mining project, tapping the brakes on the project due to the need for more review. The permit, which would allow PolyMet to destroy more than 900 acres of wetlands in northern Minnesota, will be paused for 90 days while the EPA considers how the mine may affect the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa downstream from the site in the St. Louis River watershed.

The EPA review and the permit suspension are a hard-fought victory for the Fond du Lac Band. The tribal community had sought to overturn PolyMet’s state-level water pollution permit at a U.S. District Court. While they didn’t win that argument, Fond du Lac was allowed to maintain pressure on the EPA to review PolyMet’s potential impacts on the reservation. If the EPA finds that PolyMet may affect Fond du Lac, the agency will have to notify the band, which opens up additional review on the permit.

While the review process is complex, and other legal challenges are moving simultaneously against PolyMet, the Army Corps’ permit suspension is good news for all those who are rightfully concerned about sulfide mining in Minnesota. Every additional review step and successful challenge helps rectify a process that has been stacked in PolyMet’s favor, and represents another opportunity for the mining company to be definitively told “no.”

The science is clear: sulfide mines like Twin Metals and PolyMet would be disastrous for Minnesota and the planet. The stored waste from the mines would be highly toxic, and a spill – increasingly likely due to climate change – would obliterate vast swaths of ecosystem and threaten downstream neighbors like Fond du Lac, not to mention 10% of the world’s surface freshwater supply in Lake Superior. And even absent a spill, the destruction of hundreds of acres of wetlands – key carbon sinks – would be harmful to the climate.

That’s why another development on the sulfide mining front is also welcome this week. Senator Tina Smith sent a letter asking for the Biden Administration to initiate a mineral segregation and withdrawal process in the Rainy River watershed, to allow study on whether sulfide mining can be safely done in that ecosystem. The watershed of the Rainy River and the Boundary Waters around it would be impacted by Twin Metals, the other well-known sulfide mine project in Minnesota. In the letter, Smith notes that the land and water resources of the region are critical to native communities and to Minnesota’s recreation economy.

Previously, the Obama Administration had initiated a mineral withdrawal process for the same purpose, only for it to be canceled in the second year of the Trump Administration. This withdrawal would allow for study to be continued. The Boundary Waters watershed is one of the most vulnerable freshwater ecosystems on earth, and an accurate scientific picture of how sulfide mining would affect it can help make the case that the risk is too great.

We thank Fond du Lac and all the organizations working to pressure leaders and continue legal challenges. Through their work, there’s hope that we can say “No Thanks” to these ill conceived sulfide mining proposals.

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