State issues final permits to PolyMet for copper-nickel mine in northern Minnesota

MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine announces the PolyMet permits. (Dave Verhasselt, MPCA)
MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine announces the PolyMet permits. (Dave Verhasselt, MPCA)

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has issued the final air and water quality permits to PolyMet Mining, Inc. for its proposed sulfide-ore mine near Hoyt Lakes. PolyMet states that it only needs one more significant permit.

The permits issued yesterday cover water discharge and air emissions. The agency also issued the Clean Water Act Section 401 certification, which relates to wetlands.

“Issuing these permits comes after a years-long process that saw the most thorough environmental review any construction project has ever had in Minnesota,” MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine said. “We are confident the requirements in these permits will protect the environment and human health over the long term.”

The permits include requirements for water treatment to meet discharge limits, a system to capture seepage from the tailings basin, air emission limits, and frequent monitoring.

Wetland replacement plans

The Army Corps of Engineers is expected to make a decision on the company’s wetland replacement plans soon, the last major permit necessary. The project will destroy nearly 1,000 acres of pristine wetlands, while the company will be required to develop new wetlands elsewhere in the state.

“The permits pave the way for a final decision from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on its wetlands (Section 404) permit, the only remaining federal permit. That decision is expected soon,” said Jon Cherry, chief executive officer of PolyMet. “The permits also will provide certainty for the financing process over the next few months as we prepare for the 2019 construction season.”

PolyMet's proposed processing plant at the former LTV Steel site. (Photo courtesy PolyMet Mining Corp.)
PolyMet’s proposed processing plant at the former LTV Steel site. (Photo courtesy PolyMet Mining Corp.)

‘Sham permitting process’

The mine site and processing plant are about 140 stream miles above Lake Superior. Two rivers that drain the area eventually join the St. Louis River, which flows into the lake at Duluth. Because sulfide-ore mining can cause acid mine drainage, a toxic pollutant, and the industry has a history of catastrophic water contamination, there are deep concerns downstream about the proposal.

Environmental organizations condemned the latest permits, saying they failed to adequately analyze the impacts, and promised to push for rigorous review.

“Today, Minnesota gave a very generous Holiday present to polluters,” WaterLegacy said. “The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency granted PolyMet a permit that has no water quality based limits on pollution to protect groundwater or surface water if contaminants seep from unlined sulfide mine waste and tailings.”

Some advocates believe that PolyMet will not be able to profitably operate the mine at the proposed size and scale. Looking at the economics of the project, there is speculation the company will receive permits at a smaller size, and then push to expand the mine.

“PolyMet has engaged in a bait and switch scheme to avoid scrutiny of larger and even riskier mine plans disclosed in their financial documents,” said Kathryn Hoffman, chief executive officer of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. “This is a sham permitting process that the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy has repeatedly objected to. 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.”

Last month, the Department of Natural Resources issued the permit to mine and other key permits. Several organizations have already filed appeals of those decisions.


Sulfide Mining Activity in Northeastern Minnesota



More Information:

MPCA permitting page for PolyMet’s NorthMet mining project


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