Commentary

PolyMet lost; now it’s up to Walz to protect our water | Opinion

May 6, 2021 8:01 am

Photo of the Partridge River, looking north at the proposed PolyMet mine site. Photo by Rob Levine/Minnesota Reformer.

In response to the recent Minnesota Supreme Court decision stopping — for now — PolyMet’s copper-sulfide mine in northeastern Minnesota, the company’s CEO spun the ruling as a “big win” and insisted they are excited to move forward quickly. 

This response leaves out the Lake Superior-sized elephant in the room: The Supreme Court struck down PolyMet’s permit to mine due to serious flaws in the permit’s ability to protect Minnesota’s clean water.

No matter how PolyMet tries to spin it, the result is the same. PolyMet was sent back to the drawing board. Given how long we have been told this project is inevitable, this court-mandated reset is a massive victory for anyone who cares about Minnesota’s clean water.

PolyMet is a proposed copper-sulfide mine that would be built upstream from the Fond du Lac Reservation and the city of Duluth. The pollution generated by the mine would flow into Lake Superior via the St. Louis River.

This type of mining is very different from traditional taconite mining, has never been done in Minnesota, and has never been done anywhere without polluting. The EPA’s most polluting industry is not compatible with the water-rich environment of northeastern Minnesota and should be subject to rigorous study before even being considered.

Yet, as growing evidence tells us, this review process was not fair or rigorous and led to state regulators issuing illegal permits.

The Supreme Court decision laid bare serious flaws with Minnesota’s environmental review process. The Supreme Court identified two critical areas the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) failed to address when issuing PolyMet’s permit to mine in December 2018.

First, the court found that the DNR was required to hold a contested case hearing before a judge prior to granting PolyMet’s permit to mine. A contested case hearing would allow for an administrative trial on the important scientific issues surrounding PolyMet, including whether a thin clay bentonite cover would truly prevent pollution from stored acid-drainage causing waste produced by the mine. 

Second, the Supreme Court found that DNR violated Minnesota law when the agency issued a “forever” permit to PolyMet. In this case, a “forever” permit is a permit to mine without a fixed end date for restoring the land to the same environmental status as before the project broke ground.

Adding a proper term limit is critical because, as the court noted, PolyMet’s own modeling shows that pollution from the proposed mine would last 200 years or more after closure. Can Minnesota really expect PolyMet — a shell company for notorious Swiss-based mining conglomerate Glencore — to treat this polluted water for 200 years? Now, you might be wondering, if all this is true, how can PolyMet declare the ruling a big win?

You are not alone.

Wetlands just of north of the tailings dam. Photo by Rob Levine/Minnesota Reformer.

There is no question the ruling was a major blow to the project. Claims to the contrary are merely an attempt to give confidence to spooked investors. The actual “wins” in the ruling for PolyMet, are hardly wins at all.

The court found that the DNR was not required to consider certain red flags like Glencore not being named on the permits, leaving Minnesota taxpayers on the hook for a potential billion-dollar clean-up if PolyMet were to declare bankruptcy; or if the company’s cheap, outdated and dangerous dam technology to store its waste fails.   

The court, however, ruled DNR could expand the scope of its contested case hearing to include any number of issues, and that the public can still challenge whatever decisions the DNR makes following the contested case hearing. Small “wins” like this do not change the outcome that PolyMet no longer has a permit to mine and will need to start over to get a new one.

With the permit to mine sent back to square one, where does this leave PolyMet? The short answer: in deep trouble.

PolyMet has three other permits suspended or pending further investigation. The fight for Minnesota’s clean water continues, and Gov. Tim Walz will have a lot of say over the future of this project. As PolyMet returns to DNR for a new permit, Walz can direct the agency to properly scrutinize this project, or he can double down on the mistakes of his predecessor and force through a mine that science tells us cannot be done safely.

If Walz wants to be an environmental champion, this is his chance. The science is there and so are the people of Minnesota. His administration did not start this problem, but whatever happens with PolyMet now, it’s on them.

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