Court puts PolyMet mine on pause while investigating new information

Processing plant PolyMet proposes to use.
Processing plant PolyMet proposes to use. (Photo by Joel Dinda, via Flickr)
[DISPLAY_ULTIMATE_SOCIAL_ICONS]In a ruling issued Wednesday, the Minnesota Court of Appeals has sided with environmental groups and suspended PolyMet’s permit to mine and dam safety permit. The stay will remain in effect at least until an Oct. 23 hearing about two contested issues.

The three-judge panel said the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources should provide more information about who is ultimately responsible for the mine, and how repeating a Brazil disaster can be averted in Minnesota.

Questions to consider

When Swiss conglomerate Glencore took over majority ownership of PolyMet in June, it was after the state had issued permits for the project near Hoyt Lakes in the St. Louis River headwaters. Environmental groups say the global corporation which now owns 72 percent of the mine has the resources to reclaim the project if it closes for any reason, and should be added to the permit to mine. Doing so would give Glencore more responsibility and liability in the event of pollution or other problems.

Minnesota governor Tim Walz has also said he wants Glencore’s name on the permit now that it’s the majority shareholder.

The court also says the DNR must address similarities between PolyMet’s tailings dam design and a Brazil mine dam that catastrophically collapsed in January, and why the agency feels PolyMet’s is safe despite what many call a dangerous design for containing its waste.

“[The environmental groups] raise serious, justifiable concerns about the ongoing regulation of the Northmet project, and we agree that the post-permit circumstances that [the environmental groups] have identified require close attention, review, and appropriate action by the DNR and other permitting authorities,” the judges wrote, in a ruling signed by chief judge Edward Cleary.

The DNR has previously argued that because the dam failure and the ownership changes occurred after the permit was issued, the agency was not required to include analysis of those factors.

Problematic permits

Environmental groups celebrated the ruling, and called on the governor to get involved.

“With three permits suspended and three investigations ongoing, it’s time for Governor Walz to take this matter seriously and tell his DNR to hold public hearings to ensure that Minnesotans are protected,” said Aaron Klemz, spokesman for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.

While the final permits were issued in late 2018, the PolyMet copper-nickel mine is still far from functioning.

The most recent stay of permits follows another Appeals Court decision on August 6 that paused a permit issued to PolyMet by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for the mine’s pollutant discharges. That case has been sent back to district court to consider “alleged procedural irregularities” in how MPCA and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency leaders communicated about the permit.to not file written comments on the permit.

Minnesota authorities, the EPA Inspector General, and the Minnesota Legislative auditor are investigating that issue.

The dam design and Glencore questions have now been added to the agenda for a Court of Appeals hearing on Oct. 23 concerning several challenges to the mine proposal.

“The DNR shall be prepared to advise the court on the status of the post-permit developments, including its evaluation of the Brumadinho dam failure and its consideration of whether Glencore will be added as a co-permittee.”

While the permits are stayed by the courts, no construction work may be conducted at the PolyMet sites.

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