Minnesota court rejects key permits for PolyMet Mine

January 13, 2020

Minnesota’s Court of Appeals has reversed key permits that had been issued to PolyMet Mining Corp. for its proposed copper-nickel mine.

The Star Tribune reported that the decision to send the permits back to state regulators for additional review does not kill the permits that were issued in 2018 for what would be the state’s first copper-nickel mine, but it is a major setback for the company. Among other issues, it will likely create significant delays and complicate the company’s efforts to raise construction financing.

The court sent the dam safety permits and permit to mine awarded by the Minnesota Depatment of Natural Resources (DNR) back to the DNR.

“We obviously are disappointed in the court’s decision,” PolyMet said in a statement. “The administrative record for the NorthMet Project is built on a comprehensive process of scientific study, analysis and public review and comment established in state law, which we participated in for 15 years. We and the regulatory agencies have strictly followed that process. We are reviewing the decision and exploring all of our options, including filing a petition for review to the Minnesota Supreme Court.”

Chief Judge Edward Cleary said the DNR erred in not holding so-called contested case hearings on the permits to fully vet objections by environmental groups and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. In a decision released Jan. 13, he ordered the DNR to hold such a hearing, which will take place before an independent administrative law judge.

Cleary said the DNR should have placed a clear time limit on PolyMet's permit to mine. Although PolyMet says it intends to mine for 20 years, the permit is not entirely clear about the timeframe.

The ruling affirmed a fourth action by the DNR: its decision to transfer an existing tailings dam permit to PolyMet.

In his decision, Cleary said several issues, including those of tailings at the project, should have been vetted in an administrative trial known as a contested case hearing.

One set of issues involves the tailings basin PolyMet has proposed to hold mine waste. The proposed dam uses an “upstream” design, he noted, which the DNR's own research indicated is “the least robust” of three possible dam construction methods. Cleary cited the tailings dam collapse at the Mount Polley Mine in British Columbia in August 2014.

The judge also noted that PolyMet hadn’t chosen a waste storage technique known as dry stack storage. Finally, Cleary noted there are valid factual questions about whether PolyMet's financial assurances are sufficient to cover future environmental cleanup costs, and whether Glencore’s increasing equity interest in PolyMet requires that its name be on the state permit.

“We remain firmly committed to putting people to work in northern Minnesota and will continue pushing forward on the project,” PolyMet said. “The NorthMet deposit is abundant in metals that address climate change in the way of renewable and clean energy technologies. We are confident that we can produce these high-demand metals responsibly, with Minnesota workers, and in compliance with all applicable regulations.”


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