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Environmental groups sue state to block approval of PolyMet

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The closed LTV Steel taconite plant
The closed LTV Steel taconite plant is abandoned near Hoyt Lakes, Minn. The prospect remains of returning the site into life as part of Minnesota's first copper-nickel mine owned by PolyMet.
Jim Mone | AP 2016

Updated: 6:30 p.m. | Posted: 2:47 p.m.

Environmental groups have gone to court to challenge the state's decision last month to grant two key permits for the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine near the Iron Range in northeastern Minnesota.

Eight different groups, including the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, and WaterLegacy, have asked the Minnesota Court of Appeals to overturn two major permits that were among several permits the state Department of Natural Resources granted to PolyMet last month.

In a third challenge, the groups are also asking the court to overturn the state's rules governing non-ferrous mining, saying the rules are too vague for courts and regulatory agencies to enforce.

The lawsuits are some of the last major opportunities for PolyMet opponents to try to block permits for the controversial project, which they contend don't do enough to protect the state from potentially severe water pollution from what would be the state's first-ever copper-nickel mine.

The permits give PolyMet a "blank check to pollute," said Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy spokesperson Aaron Klemz.

The groups argue, for example, that the permit to mine approved by the DNR does not spell out exactly how PolyMet plans to close and reclaim the mine after operating it for its planned 20-year lifespan. They argue Minnesota rules require final design plans to be submitted before permits are issued.

They also say the DNR arbitrarily rejected to include less risky alternatives for managing mine waste in the dam safety permit for PolyMet, which regulates the enormous earthen dam and tailings basin designed to store mine tailings, a mixture of water and mine waste.

The groups have also asked the court to reverse the state's decision not to hold a so-called contested case hearing on PolyMet before an independent judge. 

The DNR defended its permit decisions. Assistant Commissioner Barb Naramore said the agency is confident they were "based on sound science, provide strong protections for Minnesota taxpayers and are fully consistent with state law."

Those decisions came after 14 years of "exhaustive review," she added, and included consideration of more than 80,000 public comments.

The state permit to mine was a critical milestone for PolyMet, but in addition to these new lawsuits, it still has to clear a few more hurdles before it can begin constructing the mine.

Additional litigation

Several environmental groups filed suit earlier this year asking for an expanded environmental review of PolyMet, after the company revealed in a filing with Canadian regulators that a mine much larger than the one it proposed to Minnesota regulators could yield substantially greater revenue. Those groups have asked the Minnesota DNR to put a stay on PolyMet's permits until that legal challenge is completed. The DNR has not yet responded.

Several groups have also sued to block the federal land exchange the Superior National Forest has already approved with PolyMet. Those suits are also on hold, pending potential congressional action that would approve the land swap legislatively and put an end to the court action.

More permits

While the state permit to mine is the most substantial of the permits PolyMet needs to obtain, it still has to secure some additional key permits, including a federal wetlands permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and air and water permits from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. PolyMet has said it expects to have those permits in hand by the end of the year.

Financing

If all remaining permits are issued, and if all the lawsuits are unsuccessful in blocking the project, PolyMet has said it could begin construction in the spring of 2019. The only remaining hurdle would be acquiring the nearly $1 billion the company has estimated it will cost to build the project.