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MCEA looks to the courts for answers from PolyMet

Keith Vandervort
Posted 8/8/19

ELY – Representatives of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy presented an update on pending litigation efforts against PolyMet Mining’s proposed new copper-nickel mine to a …

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MCEA looks to the courts for answers from PolyMet

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ELY – Representatives of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy presented an update on pending litigation efforts against PolyMet Mining’s proposed new copper-nickel mine to a Tuesday Group gathering here.
MCEA Chief Executive Officer Kathryn Hoffman, along with Staff Attorney Evan Mulholland and Director of Public Engagement Aaron Klemz, spoke to about 100 people as they outlined the status of as many seven separate lawsuits they are involved with that concern the PolyMet project. Their comments came just hours before a three-judge panel of the Minnesota Court of Appeals issued a stay on PolyMet’s water discharge permit while a district court undertakes additional fact-finding into irregularities in the permitting process.
Earlier this year, PolyMet obtained all the state and federal permits required to open the state’s first copper-nickel mine, near Hoyt Lakes. The company is seeking financing for the estimated $1 billion cost of construction of the facility. No timeline exists for when the mine might open, and this week’s court developments could well create further delay in the company’s plans.
“We were founded 45 years on the premise that the environment needs good lawyers to help protect it,” Hoffman said. “Our particular niche is to provide legal and scientific expertise. In terms of the PolyMet mine process, we have come to the point where litigation is the primary tool that we have.”
PolyMet’s environmental review process began as early as 2005. “Through the review process leading up to the permitting late last year, we did see changes to the project for the better,” Hoffman said.
For example, back in 2010, the project was going to let the water flow freely from the site into a nearby river after closing. “We pointed out that it is a big problem under the Clean Water Act, and they came back with a proposal to capture and treat the water before releasing it.”
“However, we still have significant concerns,” Hoffman added.
She joined MCEA in 2010 as staff attorney and works to support energy and mining issues. She was named CEO in January 2017. She holds a Masters in Public Policy with a concentration in science, technology and the environment from the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, and also serves as adjunct faculty at the University of Minnesota Law School.
“We are in federal court. We’re in district court. We’re in the Minnesota Court of Appeals. It’s a lot,” she said, as she described many of the lawsuits. They include a challenge of a U.S. Forest Service-PolyMet land exchange, as well as a suit seeking a supplemental environmental impact statement to study PolyMet’s plans for a much larger mining operation than originally studied. MCEA has also launched litigation seeking better state sulfide mining rules, as well as challenges of air, water, and wetlands permits issued to PolyMet by both state and federal regulators.
Mulholland noted that the water discharge permit has captured recent statewide and national media attention over claims both federal and state regulators tried to keep scientists’ concerns over the proposed permit under wraps.
Klemz suggested PolyMet could be subject to a tailings dam collapse, as recently occurred at a mining operation in Brazil, noting that the same Illinois-based engineer who has minimized the risks with PolyMet had said the Brazilian dam had little chance of failure mere weeks before it collapsed.
“We’re seeing a lot of patterns emerge where our agencies push this through in spite of the fact that there are red flags,” he said.
A video clip of the dam failure prompted a suggestion from the audience that all state legislators should view the catastrophe. “A picture is worth a thousand words,” said one audience member.
“PolyMet is the snowplow and the other mine projects are lined up behind it,” Klemz said. “As we get into permitting, the precedents that are set here are very important, and it is not just legal precedent, but there is also political and social precedent as well. How are we going to use our regulatory tools to protect our water and our people? We are extremely concerned that the precedents that are being set are not protecting our water.”
During a brief question and answer period, Klemz responded to the recent dry-tailings option announced by Twin Metals as part of its own proposal for a copper-nickel mine near Ely. “It has the advantage of avoiding a catastrophic kind of failure, but it also has other issues, such as keeping all water out of the stack,” Klemz said.
“This was a public relations message and not a regulatory message,” he added. “Similar to what PolyMet said back in 2009, when they wanted to actually produce copper wire right at the production site next to the mine, and now we have the most low-cost bargain-basement version of any mine. There will be no added value of processing here. We are really skeptical of any press release we see from a mine company.”

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