The Potluck

Minnesota Supreme Court pauses PolyMet mining project

By: - April 28, 2021 4:27 pm

An old production truck on display at the Hull Rust Mine View. Photo by Christina Hiatt Brown.

PolyMet was dealt a setback from the Minnesota Supreme Court Wednesday as it seeks to start the state’s first copper-nickel mine in northeastern Minnesota.

The state’s highest court sent the permit to mine — a key permit among many — back to the Department of Natural Resources for further review, after the agency first issued the permit in late 2018. The court ruled that the state Department of Natural Resources incorrectly issued the permit by failing to include a fixed term — an end date after which the site is supposed to be cleaned to the point of returning to nature.

The company issued a statement noting the court ruled against it on a narrow issue while siding with the company on other aspects of the complex case.

Still, the ruling effectively pauses the project. Conservationist and environmental groups declared the decision a win.

“The people of Minnesota oppose this dangerous sulfide mine proposal and today the people won,” said Kathryn Hoffman, CEO of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, in a statement. “Today, the Supreme Court hit the reset button on PolyMet. Now it’s up to Gov. (Tim) Walz and his agencies to make better decisions and protect Minnesotans and the water they depend on.”

The court also found that the appeals court incorrectly repealed two of PolyMet’s dam safety permits in an early 2020 ruling.

“This is a big win for PolyMet, our supporters, and for industry in Minnesota,” CEO Jon Cherry said in a statement. He cited the court’s decision to deny opponents the right to more drawn out battles — called “contested case hearings” — save one issue. PolyMet, which is majority-owned by Switzerland-based Glencore, won a previous Supreme Court decision in February over air permits.  

The court ruled on immediate next steps: DNR has to hold a trial-like process called a contested case hearing to determine whether or not the clay lining of the mine’s waste pond will effectively contain pollution and, therefore, whether or not it is able to be permitted.

New mines require a constellation of approvals and permits from both state and federal government.

Mine proposals must go through extensive environmental reviews to ensure that the new project is in line with all applicable laws — chiefly environmental laws. In Minnesota, this process includes an environmental review process, during which DNR produces an Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, on PolyMet’s plan.

DNR and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, or MPCA, determine whether or not to issue permits based on their evaluation of the plan and its environmental impacts. 

The permitting process for PolyMet has been one of the most contested in state history. After PolyMet secured all necessary state and federal permits in November of 2018, groups like Friends of the Boundary Waters, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and more spearheaded legal challenges.

When decisions were reversed, PolyMet appealed, and permitting has been tied up in the courts ever since.

Wednesday’s decision is the latest turn of events in what is likely to be a lengthy and ongoing confrontation over the future of the Duluth Complex — an ancient rock formation near Lake Superior that houses four billion tons of currently untapped copper and nickel — and whether or not its precious metals stay in the ground.

The convoluted process and the back and forth approvals and reversals have damaged the public’s trust in the DNR and the MPCA, said Chris Knopf, executive director of the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, in a statement: “Rather than defend our water and land, they teamed up with a Swiss mining conglomerate in an attempt to ram through a toxic copper-sulfide mine. There is still much work to be done. We need better protection against the corrupting and polluting industry,” Knopf said.

Knopf called for a “Prove It First” bill in Minnesota, which was introduced this session by state Sen. Jennifer McEwen, DFL-Duluth. The bill would require mining companies to prove that a similar mine has operated elsewhere in the United States for at least 10 years and has been closed for at least 10 years without causing pollution, before being permitted in Minnesota.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Cinnamon Janzer
Cinnamon Janzer

Cinnamon Janzer is a Minneapolis-based freelance journalist dedicated to covering lesser-told stories across Middle America.