Minnesota Supreme Court revokes key water permit for NorthMet Mine

August 7, 2023

The proposed NorthMet copper-nickel project in northern Minnesota suffered another set back when the Minnesota Supreme Court sent the project’s water discharge permit back to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for further clarification and documentation.

The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that state regulators failed to fully consider the threat to water quality when issuing the permit.

The Star Tribune reported that regulators at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency will now have to gather comments from federal officials in writing, and potentially set pollution limits in the mine's permit to address those comments, according to the ruling.

The NorthMet project, originally proposed by PolyMet Mining, would be a massive open pit mine to extract copper, nickel and other metals at a site near Babbitt, MN, and then ship the material for processing at the former LTV Steel site in Hoyt Lakes.

In its ruling, the court wrote that there were "several danger signals" suggesting that state regulators did not properly consider whether the project would violate water pollution standards in the Lake Superior watershed.

NewRange Copper Nickel, the recently formed partnership of PolyMet and Teck that's now behind the project, said it is “confident that the additional proceedings will confirm the project protects water quality for all, and welcomes working with stakeholders on the permit.”

“As designed, the NorthMet Project will employ the most advanced and protective water treatment technology of any mining project in the history of the State of Minnesota,” NewRange said.

“Today’s Minnesota Supreme Court ruling is incredibly disappointing, especially given our State’s commitment to a clean, carbon-free energy future that cannot be realized without the minerals that NewRange Copper Nickel has proposed to safely bring to the surface,” Julie Lucas, executive director of MiningMinnesota said. “We trust that our state’s experienced regulators will diligently review the Court’s decision, as well as evidence of the project’s net decrease to both sulfate and mercury loading downstream, and reissue the NPDES/SDS permit for the proposed project.”

An MPCA spokeswoman said the agency was reviewing the ruling.

While it worked on the original permit, the MPCA gathered feedback from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on the phone, not through a formal letter — an unusual arrangement that kept the EPA's concerns out of the public record and that environmental groups said corrupted the public process, the Star Tribune reported.

A concurring opinion signed by five justices found that the MPCA and the EPA had also treated Fond du Lac's water quality standards, which are stricter than Minnesota's, as an "afterthought."

Because of a lack of documentation of the conversations between MPCA and EPA, "we simply do not have an adequate administrative record to resolve the substantive claims" on water quality limits, Associate Justice G. Barry Anderson wrote in the unanimous decision.

The proposed NorthMet mine faced a major setback in June when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers revoked a separate wetland destruction permit, and it faces other environmental permit challenges. A lower court had also already asked the MPCA to review a different part of the wastewater permit.

The state Supreme Court also said that MPCA needs to either give the mine a special exception or find a way to limit groundwater pollution directly under the tailings basin and rock stockpiles that the NorthMet mine would use.

PolyMet had proposed building underground walls around these sites to contain the polluted groundwater, and then pumping it out for treatment. But MPCA will now have to consider how to stop the pollution in the first place.

If the agency can't find a ready fix, "PolyMet is going to have to redesign its tailings basin and stockpiles," said Joy Anderson, the attorney from Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy who worked on the case. "That would be a very big deal."



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