The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) released its draft permit to mine for PolyMet Mining’s long contested proposed copper-nickel operation on the Iron Range on Jan. 5.
An approved permit would allow PolyMet to construct and begin operations of the NorthMet Mine under the DNR’s conditions.
The proposed permit, which includes 20,000 pages of documents that lay out the project, the conditions under which it will be built and then closed decades from now comes after more than 10 years of regulatory review and contentious public meetings. It could also clear the way for the first copper-nickel mining permit in state history. The permit also shows how the project will fund what could be hundreds of years of water treatment to remove heavy metals and other contaminants after the mine closes.
“We believe our mine design meets all necessary requirements to construct and operate the mine in compliance with state law under the published draft permit conditions,” said Jon Cherry, PolyMet president and chief executive officer. “Public comment on these conditions is the last step before DNR makes its final decision.”
“This is a big step," said Brad Moore, vice president of environmental and government affairs for PolyMet Mining Corp., a Canadian company. "We've had a decade of public process, and as a result we have a strong project.”
However, the Star Tribune reported the process in not over just yet. The DNR has proposed two more public meetings — Feb. 7 in Aurora, Minn., and Feb. 8 in Duluth — and a 60-day public comment period. It's the first time state regulators have opened up a large industrial permit for public meetings and review.
Several regulatory steps remain as well, including permits from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency that will set limits on pollutants the mine can discharge into air and water and a federal permit for wetland management.
The company must also raise hundreds of millions it will need to build the mine, and nail down some $588 million in bankruptcy-proof financial instruments for the first three years of operation; the permit requires that "financial assurance" to protect taxpayers from any environmental harm and bankruptcies that could befall the project.
PolyMet's NorthMet project, is expected to cost $650 million or more, on top of the $300 million the company has already spent. It would operate for about 20 years and cover 77 km2 (30 sq miles), and include three open pits that would eventually be 213 m (700 ft) deep.
It would take out more than 2,430 ha (6,000 acres) of U.S. Forest Service land that PolyMet has already agreed to exchange elsewhere in the northeast part of the state — the subject of two lawsuits from environmental groups. And it will take out 364 ha (900 acres) of wetlands to be replaced by the creation or acquisition of other wetlands within St. Louis County — a swap that was clarified for the first time in the permit.
The company says the mine will create about 300 jobs and produce 32.6 kt/a (72 million lbs/year) of copper annually. In addition, it would produce many more millions of pounds of nickel, cobalt and precious metals — a total of 483 Mt (533 million st) of ore and waste rock over the life of the mine.