First MN Copper Mine on the Verge of Approval

Better late than never. That’s the takeaway from what should be the final stage of approval for the PolyMet copper mine in northeastern Minnesota. The Duluth News Tribune marks what amounts to a break through moment for the regional and state economy with a public hearing today on the Iron Range.

After 13 years, millions of dollars and a winding path through regulatory scrutiny, Minnesota’s first-ever copper mine might be on the verge of its last-ever public hearings.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Pollution Control Agency will hold open-house and public input sessions Wednesday in Aurora and Thursday in Duluth on draft permits they have released for PolyMet Mining Corp.

The primary DNR permit would govern PolyMet’s plan to mine the land, process the ore and ultimately reclaim the site. The PCA permits dictate how the company will control air and water pollution at the proposed open-pit mine near Babbitt and processing plant near Hoyt Lakes.

The public hearings will likely draw hundreds of pro-mining residents and environmental activists still intent on blocking economic development through responsible mining.

After the agencies review public comments this spring, final permits for the projected $650 million project could be issued later this year, with construction set to follow. The company hopes to be mining and processing copper, nickel, platinum and other valuable metals by 2020.

“It’s moving toward the home stretch. … It’s the next important step of the process. A damned long and comprehensive process,” said Frank Ongaro, executive director of Mining Minnesota, the copper-mining trade group. “Until now, it’s been about possible environmental impacts. Now, it’s about how a company is going to build and operate a mine and meet all of the air and water quality standards while doing so.”

But look for environmental hardliners to fall back on their last ditch line of defense–the courts.

Copper-mining critics predict the permits will end up in a lawsuit, or a contested case hearing, or both. A contested case hearing — with public input and open hearings, and overseen by an administrative law judge — can be called for by the agency commissioner or triggered by downstream property owners or by groups that claim disputed facts remain unresolved. If the agency commissioners don’t agree that there are disputed material facts, opponents can ask the Minnesota Court of Appeals to intervene.

“When this ends up in front of a neutral third party, whether it’s in court or an administrative law judge, they will not let happen to Minnesota what’s happened in every other state where sulfide mining has been permitted,” said Paula Maccabee, attorney for the group WaterLegacy. “PolyMet’s draft permits are full of vague, unenforceable statements and weak conditions written by agencies that have bent over backwards to help this project advance. They aren’t going to hold up to impartial scrutiny.”

More than 12 years of environmental studies and reviews and 21 government permits later, there’s still no satisfying mining opponents. But they may finally be running out of options and time.

Supporters say the PolyMet project, which will mine 32,000 tons of rock daily and employ about 300 people, will help diversify a regional economy that has been tied the cyclical iron mining industry for a century. The project will require an estimated 2 million construction hours.

“We are delighted to see the last of the major state permits we have applied for released as draft permits by the state,” said Jon Cherry, PolyMet CEO, on the day the PCA draft water permit was made public. “It has been a long and difficult road, and we look forward to receiving the agencies’ final decisions on these permits.”