PolyMet files for permit to build northern Minn. copper mine

Jon Cherry
In this Dec. 6, 2013 file photo Jon Cherry, PolyMet CEO, speaks at the company's facility in Hoyt Lakes, Minn.
Dan Kraker | MPR News 2013

PolyMet has formally filed for a permit to build a controversial copper-nickel mine in northeastern Minnesota, a key next step that triggers an extended review of the company's finances and the mine's potential environmental impact.

The permit application includes PolyMet's plans for wetland replacement, financial protections and set asides to pay for any future problems. It's the first copper mining permit application in Minnesota's history, the state Department of Natural Resources said Thursday.

DNR officials in March gave their final blessing to the agency's massive environmental analysis of the PolyMet mine — its largest-ever environmental review — paving the way for the permit application.

The agency on Thursday said the permit review "will take many months" and include "a team of DNR technical experts, additional state agencies, local governments, and DNR's independent expert contractors."

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The application, however, is a crucial milestone for PolyMet, which wants to dig and process copper, nickel and precious metals for 20 years at its deposit known as NorthMet, part of the Duluth Complex, a rich vein of minerals that stretches from Duluth north to the Canadian border.

The company hopes to build the mine near Babbitt, Minn., with a processing facility near Hoyt Lakes, Minn. Union and business supporters of the project say PolyMet would provide a much-needed economic jolt and add hundreds of new jobs in a region scarred by the recent downturn in the iron mining industry.

Environmental groups and area Indian tribes, however, have filed hundreds of pages of comments highly critical of the environmental analysis performed by the DNR and its federal partners.

They argue the document relies on flawed data provided by PolyMet contractors, underestimates the potential water pollution from leftover mine waste and abandoned mine pits, exaggerates the ability of the company's engineering plans to capture and treat polluted water before it escapes the mine site and failed to consider more environmentally friendly options.

They also worry that approving PolyMet could pave the way for other proposed mines in the region.

PolyMet on Thursday said this was the last of the major permit applications following its filing of water-related and air quality permit applications to the DNR and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency earlier in the year. It also outlined what it described as "bankruptcy-proof financial assurance" that would allow state officials to close and reclaim the operation if the company were unable.

"This application is the product of more than a decade of independent and peer-reviewed scientific studies and analysis. It reflects the culmination of thousands of hours of meticulous work by the PolyMet team and our consultants and advisers," PolyMet CEO Jon Cherry said in a statement.

"It demonstrates in detail," he added, "the numerous steps we would take to ensure the mine operates in an environmentally responsible and safe manner, meets the high standards and expectations we and others have set for the project, and that there will be funds set aside to ensure that taxpayer dollars will not be needed for reclamation."