Key permit for NorthMet Mine revoked by Army Corps of Engineers

June 7, 2023

A key water permit for the proposed NorthMet copper-nickel mine in northeastern Minnesota was revoked by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The Army Corps said the permit, known as the Clean Water Act “Section 404” wetland permit was revoked because it could not “ensure compliance with the applicable downstream water quality requirements” of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, whose reservation lies downstream from the proposed mine on the St. Louis River.

Minnesota Public Radio reported that while it is a significant set back for New Range Copper Nickel, a joint venture between PolyMet and Teck that was formed earlier this year, it does not kill the project. NewRange Copper can submit a new application for a wetlands permit or it can challenge the decision in federal court.

NewRange Copper Nickel was formed to advance to the NorthMet copper-nickel mine and processing facility near Hoyt Lakes and Babbitt. On May 30, the company announced an $18 million project to begin salvaging and recycling scrap metal and concrete at the former LTV Steel processing plant which it plans to use as a new processing facility for the mine.

But the wetlands permit is one of several key approvals that NewRange needs before it began actual construction of the NorthMet Mine that have now either been revoked, or put on hold due to ongoing litigation and regulatory work.

The decision comes a little more than a year after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommended against reissuing the permit to PolyMet, saying the project risked increasing levels of mercury and other pollutants in the St. Louis River downstream from the proposed mine.
The 404 wetlands permit is one of several key approvals that PolyMet needs to begin construction on what would be the state’s first mine for copper, nickel, and precious metals.

The permit allows PolyMet to fill nearly 1,000 acres of wetlands at its proposed mine site with dredged material, something mine opponents have described as the largest permitted destruction of wetlands in the state’s history.

PolyMet first secured its wetlands permit in early 2019. But the Army Corps suspended the permit in 2021 after the Fond du Lac Band sued, arguing that the EPA had failed to notify the Band that the mining project may affect its downstream waters, something required under the Clean Water Act.

Now, the Army Corps has sided with the EPA, which says that mercury discharged by the mine and released by wetlands impacted by construction of the mine would violate the Fond du Lac Band’s water quality standards.

“The Corps’ decision is one that requires careful review, determined action, and further engagement with regulators and all key stakeholders,” NewRange Copper Nickel said in a statement.

The company added it’s “reviewing all of our options as we chart a course forward for the development of the NorthMet Project in a safe and environmentally responsible manner that considers NewRange’s communities of interest.”

NewRange also argues the project would reduce mercury and sulfate pollution in the St. Louis River basin by installing water treatment and management systems at an old iron ore mining waste tailings basin that it plans to reuse.

“Today’s decision by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is reversal of thoroughly reviewed water quality data that has been collected and assessed over the last decade,” NewRange said.

In a statement, Minnesota Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, said “The Biden Administration continues their assault on northern Minnesota and our way of life. Today’s political decision highlights the need for serious permitting reform to limit frivolous lawsuits and modernize the Clean Water Act permitting process.”



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