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Jun 16, 2023

Op-ed: U.S. Army Corps’ PolyMet decision presents an opportunity on climate

Save the bogs, recycle the metal

This op-ed appeared originally in the Minnesota Reformer. 6/16/23

Opinion by Abby Dougherty, MCEA Northeast Program Associate, Duluth Office, 6/16/23


The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently revoked the PolyMet Section 404 wetlands destruction permit, a necessary permit for the project to move forward. 

At issue was the destruction of 900 acres of wetlands and the draining of up to 7,000 acres more — what would’ve been the largest permitted destruction of wetlands in Minnesota’s history. 

In response to an objection by the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, the Army Corps and the EPA found that PolyMet’s proposed activities would violate the Band’s water quality standards.

This development has profound impacts. It signifies respect for tribal water quality standards and treaty rights; it protects the massive public investments made into the restoration of the St. Louis River Estuary; and it gives hope to everyone who cares about the St. Louis River being swimmable, drinkable and fishable. 

Chairman Kevin Dupuis of the Fond du Lac Band said in a statement after the win that “the Corps’ decision was the right one and upholds the trust, responsibility and the treaty promises the United States made to the Band.”

It is also a win for our climate. 

For years, advocates for copper-nickel mining have simultaneously pushed for coal-fired electricity. Despite the recent claims PolyMet has been making about its importance to domestic clean energy, there is a conspicuous lack of evidence to back those claims up. 

First of all, PolyMet would not be under any legal obligation to sell copper to domestic buyers — and certainly not to American clean energy producers. The percentage of copper and nickel produced going to clean energy solutions is vanishingly small, and the industry has done little to nothing to address this part of the equation. Mining companies tend to sell to the highest bidder.

Crucially, if built, the NorthMet mine would have been one of the top 10 greenhouse gas emitters in Minnesota, adding at least 700,000 tons of greenhouse gas to our state’s carbon output every year.

By contrast, Army Corps’ permit revocation offers needed protection to the thousands of acres of carbon-sequestering peatlands and wetlands that the NorthMet mine would have destroyed. These wetlands — often referred to as carbon sinks — store thousands of years worth of organic matter in their soil layers, and if disturbed, that carbon would be released into the air as climate-warming greenhouse gas. Destruction of peatlands could have released a carbon “burp” into the atmosphere of up to 745 metric tons of carbon per acre lost. Preservation is the only way to avoid the carbon emissions from wetland and peatland destruction. No design tweak or “wetland credit” can get around this basic fact. 

Instead, when left intact, these precious wetlands in Minnesota’s North Country will continue to serve as a natural sponge for atmospheric carbon, as they’ve done for millenia. In a world that is becoming saturated with overengineered and paradoxical “climate solutions,” wetland and peatland protection offers a free and simple way to keep carbon in the ground and out of the air. All we have to do is let them be.

While we let the wetlands do their carbon-sequestering thing, we can get to work on reducing the stream of valuable metals entering landfills every day — metals that could be used for renewable energy. Incredibly, an increase in the U.S. copper recycling rate of just 1% would produce the same amount of copper as NorthMet proposed, while NorthMet’s estimated nickel production could be achieved by increasing the nickel recycling rate by only 1.2%. 

The Iron Range Partnership for Sustainability sees the environmental and economic promise in recycling for renewable energy, particularly in metal-rich e-waste. Their 2023 pilot study found that at a 100% recycling rate, Minnesota’s e-waste could supply enough copper for 155,000 EVs per year, which is about half of all passenger vehicles sold annually statewide.

And though recycling alone will not be enough to sustain current (unsustainable) levels of consumption, neither would the NorthMet mine. While we work toward bigger solutions, let’s at least choose the interim solutions in front of us that do the least harm. 

The Army Corps’ decision to revoke the PolyMet wetlands destruction permit offers an opportunity for Minnesotans and our state government to work toward real climate solutions, not fake ones. It’s essential that we take it.