Updated: 12:40 p.m. | Posted: 10:45 a.m.
State environmental officials have granted more key permits for the proposed PolyMet mine, the last of the major state approvals the company needs to build Minnesota's first mine for copper, nickel and precious metals.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency on Thursday issued three air and water quality permits for the nearly $1 billion project.
That leaves only one major permit the company still needs before it can begin construction, a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers outlining PolyMet's plans to replace wetlands destroyed by building the open-pit mine near the Iron Range in the northeastern part of the state. It will also need additional local permits and approvals.
PolyMet CEO Jon Cherry said he expects the Army Corps permit soon.
"This represents the culmination of many years of hard work to allow the building of Minnesota's first copper-nickel mine," Cherry said.
• Related: Four things to know about the PolyMet mine
• FAQ: Everything you need to know about PolyMet
The approvals follow additional major permits issued by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in early November, including the Permit to Mine, which outlines how PolyMet plans to dig the mine, process 32,000 tons of ore every day for 20 years, close and reclaim the site, and control water pollution for decades and potentially longer after the mine closes.
The project has gone through nearly 15 years of environmental review. State officials have characterized it as one of the most thoroughly studied and vetted proposals the state has ever considered. PolyMet says the MPCA and DNR permit approvals demonstrate how the project's engineering designs will enable it to meet strict environmental standards.
• Earlier: DNR's PolyMet permits bring Minn. closer to its first copper-nickel mine
• Related: Environmental groups sue state to block approval of PolyMet
Environmental groups have challenged the process from the start, citing concerns over water quality in one of the state's most pristine corners.
The conservation group Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy called it "a sham process," and vowed to continue its challenges.
"As we have throughout this process, our experts and attorneys will take a hard look at the permits issued today and make a decision about what actions we can take to best to protect Minnesotans and the water they depend on," the organization said in a statement Thursday.
"It's a sad day for the Lake Superior watershed as PolyMet continues to inch forward," said Marc Fink, a Duluth-based attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. "Downstream communities strongly oppose this reckless proposal."
The group Duluth for Clean Waters had a similar reaction. "If built, PolyMet would be bad for Minnesota and a continual threat to Duluth and the water tens of thousands of people rely upon," the group said in a statement. "Furthermore, PolyMet would be a climate disaster. There could not be a worse idea than destroying thousands of acres of carbon sink wetlands at this time."
Backers on the Iron Range hope PolyMet is the first of several mines to tap the a rich deposit of copper and nickel in the region. PolyMet itself would create about 360 direct jobs, but supporters say the mine and other possible developments to follow could inject additional energy into the economy of northern Minnesota's Iron Range.
State Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent, who chairs the state Legislature's House Subcommittee on Mining, Forestry and Tourism, hailed the move in a statement Thursday.
"I applaud MPCA for its work in issuing these permits," he said. "Doing so will be a huge boost for job creation and the economic development in our state, and benefit our kids and our future as a mining community."
The labor and business group Jobs for Minnesotans echoed that point as it applauded the MPCA's decision in a statement Thursday: "These permits will re-energize the region's supplier and professional service network, assure long-term employment for skilled tradespeople, generate a more diverse and thriving regional and statewide economy, as well as create access to essential metals to power the green economy and our modern world."
PolyMet plans to dig the open pit mine on land near Babbitt, Minn., that it acquired in a land swap with the Superior National Forest, although several environmental groups have sued to overturn the exchange.
Then it would ship the ore by train to an old taconite mine near Hoyt Lakes, Minn., which it plans to repurpose to process copper, nickel, and precious metals. The company also plans to reuse the old tailings facility at the site, upgraded with new technologies, including strengthening of the tailings dam and a water treatment plant.
Environmental groups have already gone to court to try to overturn two major permits the DNR granted early last month — a permit to mine, and a dam safety permit.
Lawsuits are also expected to be filed challenging these permits from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.