Court suspends two key PolyMet permits

LTV taconite mine
The LTV taconite mine was closed in 2001. The PolyMet Mining wants to use the facility for its copper-nickel processing plant.
Courtesy of PolyMet Mining

In a major victory for environmental groups, a state court has put two key permits for the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine on hold, in advance of a hearing on the issue scheduled for next month.

In its ruling issued late Wednesday afternoon, the Minnesota Court of Appeals sided with conservation groups’ arguments and suspended PolyMet’s permit to mine and dam safety permit, which the Minnesota DNR issued in November 2018.

In Wednesday’s nine-page decision, the court said the DNR failed to adequately consider two key developments that occurred after the agency issued the permits: the massive failure of a tailings basin dam at an iron ore mine in Brazil that shares design characteristics with the dam PolyMet plans to build to store mine waste; and the acquisition of a majority stake in PolyMet by the Swiss mining conglomerate, Glencore.

“Although the parties disagree about the import of the developments, there is no dispute that the developments warrant the DNR’s consideration,” the court wrote. “We agree that the post-permit circumstances... require close attention, review, and action by the DNR and other permitting authorities."

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The ruling is the second legal blow dealt in the last three months to Toronto-based PolyMet, which is vying to build the first mine in the state to tap a rich belt of copper, nickel and precious metals in northern Minnesota, a $1 billion project near the Iron Range towns of Hoyt Lakes and Babbitt.

In June, the same court put a temporary stay on a third PolyMet permit, a major water quality permit issued by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, pending an investigation into whether the MPCA and the federal Environmental Protection Agency attempted to keep EPA comments critical of the permit out of the public record.

The Minnesota courts, EPA Inspector General’s Office and the state Legislative auditor are conducting investigations into how the two agencies handled the permit.

“With three permits suspended and three investigations ongoing, it's time for Gov. Walz to take this matter seriously and tell his DNR to hold public hearings to ensure that Minnesotans are protected,” said Aaron Klemz, spokesperson for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit.

In a statement, PolyMet said the Minnesota DNR has already addressed questions about the dam collapse in Brazil, pointing out key differences between what PolyMet has proposed and the South American dam, which was much steeper and located on a mountainside, compared to northern Minnesota’s relatively flat terrain.

“We are confident that the post-permit questions that led to the temporary stay lack merit,” company spokesperson Bruce Richardson said in a statement.

It’s unclear whether this ruling will have any impact on the project’s timeline. PolyMet is working to raise the nearly $1 billion it needs to construct the mine.

The Court of Appeals said the Minnesota DNR should be prepared at the Oct. 23 oral arguments to detail its evaluation of the Brazilian mine dam collapse, and its consideration of whether Glencore, which now owns more than 71 percent of PolyMet, will be added as a co-permittee.

PolyMet said it expects the Court of Appeals to issue a decision on the challenges to the DNR’s permitting decisions by late January of next year.

Despite uncertainty, conservation groups fighting to prevent this new kind of mining in Minnesota from gaining a foothold hailed the ruling as significant.

“Special interests placed enormous pressure on government officials to ram PolyMet through,” said Chris Knopf of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, another party in the case. “The court has wisely stayed the DNR permits to enable a proper review of the impact of these permits.”