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Minnesota OKs final state permits for PolyMet's NE Minn. copper-nickel mine

Dec 20, 2018 12:10PM ● By Editor

In this photo taken Feb. 10, 2016, the closed LTV Steel taconite plant sits abandoned near Hoyt Lakes, Minn. The site is getting closer to returning to life as part of Minnesota's first copper-nickel mine, proposed by the PolyMet mining company. Jim Mone | AP file 2016

By Dan Kraker of Minnesota Public Radio News - December 20, 2018

State environmental officials have granted more key permits for the proposed PolyMet mine, the last of the major state approvals the company needs to build Minnesota's first mine for copper, nickel and precious metals. 

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency on Thursday issued three air and water quality permits for the nearly $1 billion project.

That leaves only one major permit the company still needs before it can begin construction, a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers outlining PolyMet's plans to replace wetlands destroyed by building the open-pit mine near the Iron Range in the northeastern part of the state. It will also need additional local permits and approvals.

Company CEO Jon Cherry said he expects the Army Corps of Engineers decision soon. 

"This represents the culmination of many years of hard work to allow the building of Minnesota's first copper-nickel mine," said Cherry. 

The approvals follow additional major permits issued by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in early November, including the Permit to Mine, which outlines how PolyMet plans to dig the mine, process 32,000 tons of ore every day for 20 years, close and reclaim the site, and control water pollution for decades and potentially longer after the mine closes. 

The project has gone through nearly 15 years of environmental review. State officials have characterized it as one of the most thoroughly studied and vetted proposals the state has ever considered. PolyMet says the MPCA and DNR permit approvals demonstrate how the project's engineering designs will enable it to meet strict environmental standards. 

MPCA commissioner John Linc Stine
MPCA commissioner John Linc Stine.  Photo: Steve Karnowski | AP file 2012

Environmental groups have challenged the process from the start, citing concerns over water quality in one of the state's most pristine corners.

The conservation group Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy called it "a sham process," and vowed to continue its challenges. 

"As we have throughout this process, our experts and attorneys will take a hard look at the permits issued today and make a decision about what actions we can take to best to protect Minnesotans and the water they depend on," the organization said in a statement Thursday.

Backers on the Iron Range hope PolyMet is the first of several mines to tap the a rich deposit of copper and nickel in the region. PolyMet itself would create about 360 direct jobs, but supporters say the mine and other possible developments to follow could inject additional energy into the economy of northern Minnesota's Iron Range.

The labor and business group Jobs for Minnesotans echoed that point as it applauded the MPCA's decision in a statement Thursday: "These permits will re-energize the region's supplier and professional service network, assure long-term employment for skilled tradespeople, generate a more diverse and thriving regional and statewide economy, as well as create access to essential metals to power the green economy and our modern world."

PolyMet plans to dig the open pit mine on land near Babbitt, Minn., that it acquired in a land swap with the Superior National Forest, although several environmental groups have sued to overturn the exchange. 

Then it would ship the ore by train to an old taconite mine near Hoyt Lakes, Minn., which it plans to repurpose to process copper, nickel, and precious metals. The company also plans to reuse the old tailings facility at the site, upgraded with new technologies, including strengthening of the tailings dam and a water treatment plant. 

Environmental groups have already gone to court to try to overturn two major permits the DNR granted early last month — a permit to mine, and a dam safety permit.

Lawsuits are also expected to be filed challenging these permits from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

To read the original article and several related stories, follow this link to the MPR website.
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