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Feb 08, 2022

Here's what you need to know about recent sulfide mining news

Aerial image of Trimble Creek, near the site for PolyMet's proposed mine. Image courtesy of Rob Levine.
Aerial image of Trimble Creek, near the site for PolyMet's proposed mine. Image courtesy of Rob Levine.

Feb. 7th, 2022, Abby Rogerson, Northeastern Minnesota Program Associate, MCEA Duluth Office


From cancelled mineral leases to grooving on from PolyMet on the Capitol lawn, the last week of January 2022 was a blitz of mining news. Day by day, here’s a synopsis of how recent developments fit into the larger picture of the fight against sulfide mining in northeastern Minnesota:


Monday, January 24th: Court of Appeals reverses and remands PolyMet’s water pollution permit

The Court of Appeals sent PolyMet’s water pollution permit back to the MPCA due to the agency’s failure to evaluate if pollution leaching into groundwater from the proposed mine would impact streams, rivers, and the Lake Superior watershed. While this decision is a resounding win in that PolyMet cannot move forward with its proposed mine without the water pollution permit, there were also troubling aspects of the decision. MCEA attorneys are currently considering their next steps, including a potential appeal. Check out Star Tribune coverage of the decision here


Tuesday, January 25th: Move on from PolyMet petition is delivered to Gov. Walz 

Just one day after another PolyMet permit was sent back to a state agency for failing to protect clean water, we gathered outside the Capitol to urge Gov. Walz to Move on from Polymet. Over 6,000 people across 84 counties in Minnesota signed their names in support of a future beyond PolyMet. Together, we braved one of the coldest days of the winter to show our commitment to clean and resilient economic futures for the Range and downstream communities like Duluth. With multiple PolyMet permits now back at state agencies, it’s well within Gov. Walz’ power to put an end to the PolyMet saga. Visit the Move on from PolyMet campaign website to learn more


…Also Tuesday: Conservation groups sue over PolyMet land exchange

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), Save Lake Superior Association, Save our Sky Blue Waters, Friends of the Cloquet Valley State Forest, and Duluth for Clean Water filed a lawsuit claiming federal agencies violated the Endangered Species Act during their handling of a PolyMet land exchange. The land exchange would allow PolyMet to destroy critical habitat for endangered lynx and northern long-eared bats. The CBD press release is available here.  


Wednesday, January 26th: U.S. Secretary of the Interior canceled Twin Metals’ mineral leases 

Deb Haaland, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, cancelled two mineral leases held by Twin Metals based on the determination they were improperly reinstated by the Trump Administration in 2019. Without the leases, Twin Metals cannot move ahead with its proposed mine. This is one of multiple challenges Twin Metals faces: the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are also considering withdrawing the Rainy River Watershed from mining activity in order to protect the Boundary Waters, which would affect Twin Metal’s proposed mine site. Neither the mineral lease cancellation nor proposed Rainy River Watershed mineral lease withdrawal impacts PolyMet.


Monday, January 31st: DNR contested case hearing on PolyMet’s Permit to Mine

In April 2021, the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the PolyMet permit to mine because DNR needed to hold a contested case hearing (CCH) on the method PolyMet proposes to use to control acid mine drainage from its tailings basin. PolyMet proposes to “amend” the tailings basin dam faces, internal “beaches,” and the tailings basin “pond” bottom with bentonite clay. Our experts (and DNR’s own experts and staff) questioned this scheme, and the Court agreed that there is no evidence in the record that such a scheme would work. 

DNR ordered the CCH to begin on September 24, 2021, but although DNR rejected accepting evidence on topics other than the bentonite amendment plan, the order indicated that DNR would consider evidence beyond the bentonite amendment when making its final decision following the hearing.  On January 31, 2022, Administrative Law Judge LaFave heard arguments on motions brought by MCEA and its allies to clarify the scope of the hearing.  We argue that a hearing about the bentonite amendment should include all systems that operate in conjunction with the bentonite amendment, including the tailings basin dam. We argued that dam safety and seepage collection are inextricably linked to the bentonite scheme. We also argued that DNR should agree to look at new dam safety information developed after it issued PolyMet’s dam permit, as the result of the Brumadinho dam disaster. The ALJ will make a decision soon.

DNR has the authority to convene a hearing on dam safety at any time, whether a part of this hearing or a future one.  In the entire 15 year process of considering the PolyMet proposal, Minnesotans have still not been granted an opportunity to see expert testimony presented on the topic of PolyMet’s dangerous dam proposal in a neutral court setting. That's what MCEA lawyers are fighting for, that's what Minnesotans should expect, and that’s what our government should agree to.

The end of January yielded a lot of great progress on our work to protect Minnesota’s water and downstream communities from the threat of copper sulfide mine pollution — but there is still a lot of work ahead. We’ll continue to provide updates as our legal and policy work develops. Stay tuned!