Updated 3 p.m. | Posted 11:39 a.m.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said Thursday it has issued permits for PolyMet Mining's proposed copper-nickel mine in northeastern Minnesota, a huge step forward for the controversial project.
The DNR has issued the permit to mine, six water appropriation permits, two dam safety permits, a public waters work permit and an endangered species takings permit, the agency said in a statement.
The project will still need water and air quality permits from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and a wetlands permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. It will also need additional local permits and approvals.
Still, the DNR's decision to issue permits makes it that much more likely the project — which has been in the works for than a decade and is set to be Minnesota's first copper-nickel mine — will be built.
'Victory for Iron Range families'
The permit to mine calls for PolyMet to make available $588 million in financial assurance the first year of mining, up from $544 million in the initial draft. That figure would rise to more than $1 billion about midway through the mine's proposed 20-year life span.
The proposed mine near Babbitt and processing plant near Hoyt Lakes on the far northeastern edge of the Iron Range offers the potential for jobs and an entire new mining industry in the region, but one that carries with it new environmental risks in the state's most pristine corner.
The DNR in January released a draft permit to mine, a move widely seen as a signal the state was comfortable that the proposed mine could meet environmental standards and provide the needed finances to pay for any needed mine cleanup.
PolyMet said Thursday the permit to mine allows it to build and operate open pit mining operations expected to deliver 1.2 billion pounds of copper and 170 million pounds of nickel, as well cobalt and precious metals over the mine's 20-year life.
Company CEO Jon Cherry called the the DNR's decision to issue permits "a victory for Iron Range families."
Environmental groups slammed the move.
"It's appalling that the state of Minnesota would authorize permanent, toxic pollution in the headwaters of Lake Superior," Marc Fink, a Duluth-based attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement.
"This massive open-pit mine would destroy huge swaths of the Superior National Forest that are critical to lynx, wolves and moose," he said, adding, "We'll continue to fight this reckless proposal with our allies, every step of the way."
Another opposition group, the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, said the PolyMet mine would put at risk the lives and health of people who lived downstream from it.
"PolyMet is a $1 billion gamble for Minnesota taxpayers and will pollute our water for hundreds of years," the group said in a statement. "Minnesotans expected and deserved an independent review of the facts before PolyMet permits were issued, and the Minnesota DNR has denied that with its announcement today."
Concerns over mining's future and the state of the environment became key issues for debate in this year's political season, although both major party candidates for Minnesota's 8th Congressional District supported the PolyMet project.
The group Jobs for Minnesota, which supports building the mine, put out statements of praise from local mayors.
The permit "signals new life for mining on the Iron Range and is a win for all of the communities that have been fighting for its success," Aurora Mayor Dave Lislegard, who sits on the Jobs for Minnesotans board, said in the statement.
What's next: More permits, no more public comment
PolyMet needs more than 20 permits — including those the DNR issued today — from local, state and federal agencies before it can begin construction.
The DNR announced Thursday that it had granted the largest of those: the permit to mine. It lays out how PolyMet plans to operate its proposed mine, control pollution and eventually close the mine after its planned 20 years in operation.
It also includes details on financial assurance protections, in case PolyMet were to declare bankruptcy and would need to close the mine without meeting its clean-up obligations.
In issuing its permits Thursday, the DNR said it would take no further public comment on the issue and would not order the "contested-case hearing" that several environmental groups asked for earlier this year. A "contested-case hearing" is a trial-like process held before an administrative law judge that includes testimony, evidence and cross-examination.
The environmental groups that requested the hearings said they'd be needed to settle disputes over issues such as the mine's tailings dam, which is designed to hold back its mine waste.
PolyMet argued that hearings were unnecessary, saying the issues they would raise have been thoroughly discussed and debated in years of environmental review and that state and federal courts are the proper venues for remaining disputes.
Several lawsuits have already been filed, and it is likely that more will follow Thursday's announcement.
Decision comes days before election
Republican Pete Stauber and DFLer Joe Radinovich, the major 8th District candidates, both praised the DNR's decision as a responsible move that will deliver jobs and protect the environment.
DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr turned aside questions that the decision to announce the permit days before the crucial election was politically motivated.
"We finished the permit and our decision-making was done," he told reporters. "It was just time to make the announcement."
Asked about the concerns of environmentalists that PolyMet intends to build a much larger mine than it proposed and is engaged in a bait-and-switch scheme to get through the permitting process, Landwehr said the permits issued are for the size of the mine proposed by PolyMet.
If in the future the company proposed expanding the project, it would need to go through another environmental review and permitting process, he added. "It is not a bait and switch."
The DNR chief acknowledged that there are environmental risks — "You can't dig a hole without having impacts" — but that the permitting process and the state's vigilance would minimize any damage.
"Because this is the first copper-nickel mine in the state of Minnesota, because people feel very passionate about it, I expect this to continue to get a great deal of scrutiny for the duration of the mine," he said.
"Probably more than any other project in the state," he added, "this will be the most closely watched and the project most highly held to strong environmental controls."