Court upholds MN rules in copper-nickel mining challenge

PolyMet wants to use the facility for its copper-nickel processing plant.
In this undated aerial file photo, the LTV Steel Mining Company which shut its doors Jan. 3, 2001, is shown near Hoyt Lakes, Minn. The PolyMet Mining Corp. wants to use the facility for its copper-nickel processing plant.
Mark Sauer | AP Photo file

Updated: 7:02 p.m. | Posted: 5:01 p.m.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals Monday dealt a setback to several environmental groups challenging the state's rules governing copper-nickel mining.

The groups argued in a lawsuit that the state’s rules over mine waste disposal, mining areas and permits to mine for “nonferrous metallic mineral mining” are too vague for courts and regulatory agencies to enforce, and don't adequately protect the environment. It was among several suits filed by conservation and environmental groups after the state approved PolyMet Mining’s controversial proposal to build Minnesota’s first copper-nickel mine late last year.

But the appeals court panel ruled that the state’s mining rules governing nonferrous mining — which includes the mining of all metals but iron ore and taconite — are valid.

In its decision, the three-judge panel said the conservation groups' complaint that the law does not impose specific limitations on copper-nickel mining is more appropriately directed to the state Legislature or its Department of Natural Resources.

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“We are pleased that the Court of Appeals ruled in our favor,” Jon Cherry, PolyMet Mining’s president, said in a statement. “Minnesota’s standards for nonferrous mining are among the strictest anywhere in the world, and we demonstrated through the extensive environmental review and permitting process that we can meet or exceed these standards.”

Environmental groups have also filed lawsuits challenging several permits that the DNR and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency issued to PolyMet, which now has all its required permits in hand and is working to raise nearly $1 billion to build its mine near Hoyt Lakes and Babbitt in northeastern Minnesota.

Groups have also challenged the legality of a federal land exchange between PolyMet and the Superior National Forest.

The challenges are among the last major opportunities for PolyMet opponents to try to block the controversial project and the deep unknown impacts of an industry that has so far been unproven in the state — one they fear could pollute the water and destroy the environment of an iconic corner of Minnesota.

Last month, more than two dozen environmental advocacy groups asked Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison to investigate the relationship between PolyMet and its new majority owner, the Switzerland-based multinational company Glencore. In addition, the state legislative auditor has announced it is investigating concerns over how the MPCA handled a water pollution permit it issued to the project, and the state appeals court — the same court involved in Monday’s ruling — ordered a hearing on alleged irregularities in how state regulators dealt with federal regulators over the water permit.

The group Jobs for Minnesotans, which supports the PolyMet project and the jobs it is expected to create for the region, applauded Monday’s ruling.

“Once again the Court of Appeals has upheld the strength and validity of the State of Minnesota’s regulatory and environmental review processes,” the organization said in a statement.

The group also blasted the many challenges that have arisen as the approval process has advanced: “Lawsuits, no matter how spurious, are now an intrinsic phase of the process, stretching out the time before people in the state can begin to experience the benefits from the project.”

But Kevin Reuther, legal director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, repeated environmentalists’ fears that introducing copper-nickel mining to the state could bring with it a host of unknown consequences to the surrounding environment.

“Nonferrous mining presents new and unknown dangers,” Reuther said in a statement Monday, “and DNR's rules are not sufficient to protect Minnesota’s resources. The state's highest court should review these rules given what's at stake.”

A second company, Twin Metals, is also in the early stages of proposing a copper-nickel mine in northeastern Minnesota, this one within the watershed of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Wilderness.