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Jan 24, 2022

Press release: Minnesota Court of Appeals rejects PolyMet water permit

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PRESS RELEASE: 2/24/22  


Sarah Horner, MCEA, shorner@mncenter.org, 612-868-3024

Peter Marshall, FBWW, pete@friends-bwca.org, 612-816-4475  


St. Paul, Minnesota -- In a ruling Monday, the Minnesota Court of Appeals sided with clean water advocacy groups and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and struck down PolyMet’s water permit, finding the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) did not evaluate whether polluted groundwater from the proposed sulfide mine would pollute streams and rivers downstream in the Lake Superior watershed. The court reversed and remanded the permit to the MPCA, and required MPCA to reevaluate groundwater pollution.

The decision is a victory for downstream communities that would bear the brunt of pollution and be at highest risk from PolyMet’s proposed sulfide mining project in St. Louis County, including the Fond du Lac Band and all people who would be forced to drink the water, eat the fish, or harvest the wild rice contaminated by PolyMet pollution. 

The court’s ruling means PolyMet lacks another key permit it needs to build and operate its proposed sulfide mine. The PolyMet proposal remains mired in court and administrative proceedings. The PolyMet permit to mine is subject to a contested case hearing, the PolyMet air permit is again under appeal, and a federal agency has stayed the PolyMet wetland destruction permit to address the downstream impact on the Fond du Lac Band. In fact, in every permit appeal that the Court of Appeals has heard on the PolyMet proposal, it has reversed or remanded a permit back to a state agency. 

The ruling also highlights, yet again, the flawed and troubling process that led Minnesota state agencies to approve weak permits for a notoriously dirty and dangerous type of mining that has never been done in Minnesota before. Although the Court of Appeals ultimately concluded that it could not reverse the MPCA because of its decision to suppress the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) comments, the Court noted that the MPCA worked to keep written EPA’s concerns about the PolyMet proposal out of the public record, and that these actions were “contrary to … public accountability of administrative agencies … and public access to governmental information” and that “[o]ur conclusion on this issue should not be misconstrued as an endorsement of the challenged procedures.”

"Once again the courts have rejected a PolyMet permit. The agency obviously has more work to do to protect Minnesota's waters and communities from the serious risks of sulfide mining," said Kathryn Hoffman, Chief Executive Officer of Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA). “It’s time for Governor Walz to move on from PolyMet’s failed proposal and create a better and safer job creation plan for Northeastern Minnesota.”

“PolyMet has been trying to greenwash its toxic mine plan. We reject PolyMet’s argument that we need to destroy the environment in order to save the environment. Today’s decision is further evidence that our laws are not designed to protect our communities or our water from the dangers of copper-sulfide mining. We need to pass the Prove It First law to protect us from this dangerous industry,” says Chris Knopf, Executive Director of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness.

“This decision confirms that PolyMet can’t ignore its pollution by pumping it into the groundwater,” said Marc Fink, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Allowing perpetual toxic mining pollution in the headwaters of Lake Superior will never make sense. It’s no accident that our state has nearly 3,000 fouled lakes, rivers and streams. Now Minnesota regulators have a chance to fix their decision and stop permitting more pollution.”

While the decision is a clear win for clean water, there are a number of parts of the decision that are troubling and could be read to weaken the protections provided by Minnesota environmental laws. The groups who appealed the MPCA’s permit (MCEA, Friends of the Boundary Waters, Center for Biological Diversity, the Fond Du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and Water Legacy) are carefully reading the decision and considering whether to appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court on these issues. 

Minnesotans will gather on the steps of the Minnesota State Capitol at 3 p.m. tomorrow to deliver a petition to Governor Tim Walz that calls on him to Move on From PolyMet given the myriad of problems that have been identified with PolyMet’s proposal. More than 5,000 Minnesota residents–hailing from nearly every county in the state– have signed the petition. 




Additional Information

Sulfide mining has never been done anywhere in the world without causing significant pollution to nearby water sources. In addition, mine dam collapses, such as the Mount Polley disaster in 2014, threaten water downstream and worker safety. The 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 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 likes to tout that 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 the least energy intensive way to get copper is to recycle it, a practice that is dramatically underutilized in the United States and elsewhere. If and when mining of the materials is necessary, it should be done first by expanding existing mines regulated by stringent permits and close agency oversight to ensure protection for nearby communities and natural resources from the risks that come from this dangerous type of mining, especially to water. 

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