Duluth citizens seek evidence-based hearings before PolyMet decision

Updated: 4:47 p.m., Aug. 24 | Posted: 4:20 p.m., Aug. 23

A group of Duluth citizens is asking for evidence-based hearings before state regulators decide whether to approve the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine.

The so-called "contested case hearing" would take place before an administrative law judge with evidence, testimony and cross-examination.

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The judge would then issue a recommendation to the Department of Natural Resources, before the DNR commissioner decides whether to grant PolyMet its Permit to Mine.

"As Duluthians we have significant concerns about the PolyMet proposal and its likely impacts on our watershed," said Duluth resident John Dobertstein, "And believe the DNR and citizens of this state should hear all evidence before making a decision."

Last month PolyMet submitted its first three major permit applications with state regulators for water quality, water use and a dam safety permit.

It has not yet submitted its permit to mine application, which among other things will include information about how much financial assurance PolyMet will need to set aside to cover potential clean-up costs.

Because PolyMet has not yet submitted that application, "it would be premature for DNR to decide whether it is going to order a pre-decisional contested case hearing," DNR spokesperson Chris Niskanen said in a statement.

Frank Ongaro, executive director of Mining Minnesota, said the permitting process already allows for ample public participation, and a contested case hearing "would be a waste of time and taxpayers' money" that wouldn't add any new information to the process.

"It's just another anti-mining effort designed to cause delay," he said.

Such a hearing could include testimony from PolyMet, state regulators and also independent experts.

The timing of when a contested case hearing could be held is critical, said Kathryn Hoffman, legal director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.

"Because if we have a judge presiding over an evidentiary hearing, and it's after the commissioner has already recommended that for instance a Permit to Mine be granted, that could influence the judge," she said. "So the judge should be allowed to weigh that information first before the DNR makes a final determination on the permit."

Editor's note (Aug. 24, 2016): An earlier version of this story was unclear on Minnesota law and the timing of contested case hearings. The story has been updated.