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Dec 18, 2023

Press Release: PolyMet air permit stands, but proposal is all but dead

Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy

Minnesota Court of Appeals allows PolyMet air permit despite concerns with mine expansion plans

Mining proposal remains without key permits needed to construct or operate

DATE: 12/18/23  CONTACT: Aaron Klemz, MCEA, aklemz@mncenter.org, 763-788-0282

St. Paul, Minnesota --  In a ruling Monday, the Minnesota Court of Appeals decided that PolyMet Mining’s air pollution permit issued by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) could stand despite concerns that PolyMet had been deceptive about the size of its proposed mine. The court determined that MPCA’s cursory examination of evidence challenging whether PolyMet applied for the correct permit is all that Minnesota law requires.

 “The PolyMet proposal as permitted five years ago is all but dead and three major permits have been sent back to the agencies that issued them. It’s time for our state government to take a hard look at what the proposed mine really means for Minnesota’s environment and the health of its people,” said Jay Eidsness, staff attorney for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA). “The Pollution Control Agency was not required to investigate how PolyMet’s public statements about operating a large mine do not match up with its permitted proposal to operate a small mine in this decision, but little has changed.”

The case in front of the appeals court was about expansion plans described to investors by PolyMet in 2018 that were not addressed in the permit. Although the appellate court has allowed this permit to stand, the approved permit relates to a proposal that can’t be built due to other negative court and agency decisions affecting project permits. In addition, the recent creation of a joint venture with Canadian mining company Teck  (“NewRange Copper Nickel LLC”) and Glencore PLC’s purchase of all remaining shares of PolyMet stock, means that PolyMet’s proposed mine is substantially different with regard to its management and scope. This merger adds a new ore body that more than doubles the amount of ore available. The combination of Glencore’s and Teck’s interests in this joint venture portends significant changes in the proposed mine, and additional potential for expansion. Meanwhile, there are a number of other significant changes and permitting decisions required by earlier court decisions. 

As part of the decision today, the appeals court ordered that the evidence of PolyMet’s expansion plans provided by MCEA to the agency be included in the permitting record, after MPCA declined to evaluate them several times. 

“The decision today also highlights the importance of state agencies giving a hard look at the risks to Minnesotans before making permit decisions. It should not take multiple trips to the appellate courts for MPCA to pay attention to publicly available documents that are relevant to its decision,” Eidsness added. 

Today’s ruling comes after two previous decisions by Minnesota appellate courts that held MPCA’s initial review of the air pollution permit was insufficient. In March 2020, the court of appeals reversed and remanded the air permit back to the state agency to address concerns about whether PolyMet had been truthful during permitting. After the Minnesota Supreme Court clarified the scope of remand to MPCA, in July 2021, the court of appeals sent the permit decision back to the state agency for additional scrutiny about PolyMet’s conduct during the permitting process. MCEA appealed MPCA’s second decision, as it still did not adequately investigate whether PolyMet misled regulators about the size of its proposed mine.

Meanwhile, court and federal agency rejection of PolyMet’s other permits highlights the problematic permitting process followed by state and federal agencies. Earlier this year, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers revoked PolyMet’s federal wetlands permit, and this past August the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed and remanded PolyMet’s water pollution permit. Most recently, an administrative law judge recommended the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources deny PolyMet’s requested permit to mine. Today, the sulfide mining proposal continues to find itself in the same position it’s been in since the first of its flawed permits was suspended by a court - unable to advance. 

MCEA represented itself along with Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness and the Sierra Club as the petitioners in the case, which began in January 2019. For additional information about today’s decision, or to request an interview about the decision or copy of the decision, please contact Aaron Klemz at the contact information listed at the top of this release.


Additional information on sulfide mining and clean energy demands 

Sulfide mining has never been done anywhere in the world without causing significant pollution to nearby water sources. The PolyMet permits issued in 2018 by the previous administration are inadequate to protect Lake Superior, the St. Louis River, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Duluth, or other downstream waters and communities from the acid mine leakage that would inevitably seep from PolyMet’s mine. 

The mine’s construction would also destroy thousands of acres of wetlands, carbon sinks we cannot afford to lose in the rapidly accelerating climate crisis. While the mining industry claims sulfide mining is necessary to produce the copper needed for the “Green Economy,” that claim is disingenuous and inaccurate. We can’t mine our way out of the climate crisis, and we know that a less energy intensive way to get copper is to recycle it, a practice that is dramatically underutilized in the United States and elsewhere. Further, demand projections are speculative and technological advancements are already starting to erode them. If and when mining of the materials is necessary, it should be done under the highest industry standards -- standards which are out of date in Minnesota. 

None of that can be said for PolyMet’s proposal for Northeastern Minnesota, a project plagued by flawed permits for a water-rich region with low-grade ore that would require crushing a lot of rock to get a little copper. 

About MCEA

MCEA is Minnesota’s premiere nonprofit environmental law and public policy organization working to protect every aspect of our environment and the health of our people, especially those most impacted by environmental degradation and climate change. We specialize in issues related to water protection, climate action and sulfide mining.