It wasn’t inevitable that PolyMet Mining’s proposed copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes would face growing skepticism by the courts and by independent government watchdogs. But an environmental review and permitting process that appears to have been driven by political calculation more than science, financial prudence, or the law certainly contributed to the latest series of setbacks for the company.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals has now ruled twice to suspend permits issued by the Department of Natural Resources or the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, including the company’s permit to mine. As it stands today, PolyMet is no longer authorized to open a mine in Minnesota and it remains unclear how long it might take to resolve all the issues that have come to the fore in just the past few months. As we reported last week, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Inspector General has expanded a federal probe into whether the Trump EPA has failed to conduct proper oversight of major industrial permits. That investigation began by looking into allegations that the MPCA and the EPA’s Great Lakes regional office may have coordinated to suppress concerns of professional EPA staff that PolyMet’s water discharge permit did not comply with the Clean Water Act. The fact that the inspector general’s early findings on the PolyMet case prompted them to expand their investigation certainly points to a substantial concern.
Those who still claim that the legal challenges and allegations raised by EPA whistleblowers are just desperate last-minute attempts to throw sand in the gears may want to rework their talking points. While we don’t yet know for certain whether there’s something rotten here, the courts and the government watchdogs have made it clear there’s a troubling aroma in the air.
The smell was apparent early on. While the DNR and PolyMet have touted the ten years of effort and thousands of pages of studies that went into their environmental review process, the effort ultimately left key questions, such as which direction contaminated groundwater would flow from the mine site, unanswered. While supporters have claimed that the environmental studies resolved all the issues and found the project could be done safely, that’s not really the case. On some key questions, the DNR simply acknowledged they don’t know for certain how the project will impact the environment and will rely on “adaptive management” to address problems that crop up. That’s a sophisticated way of saying, “We don’t know what will happen, but we’ll try to figure something out when it does.”
We didn’t need a ten-year study for answers like that.
The aroma around the permitting process appears even less appetizing to the courts and government inspectors, as we’ve recently reported.
Unfortunately, this is what happens when political consideration replaces sound judgment and real science in such an important decision-making process. Despite the rhetoric, this has always been a question of votes on the Iron Range.
Legitimate questions remain to be answered, such as:
Who is really behind this project? Is PolyMet simply a fresh face masking the far uglier visage of the international conglomerate, Glencore, currently under federal investigation for corrupt practices? It appears that’s a question that Minnesota courts now want to examine, and rightly so.
Is PolyMet serious about pursuing its current mine plan? The company’s existing plan to process 32,000 tons per day is marginally profitable, at best, at least at current metal prices. Company officials have already revealed that they’ve been looking at much larger projects with faster rates of production in order to improve the economics. We have no idea what the environmental consequences of such plans might be.
Would the tailings dikes be safe if the amount of waste material involved doubles or triples? There are already serious questions about the safety of the tailings dike in the aftermath of the failure of similar dikes in Brazil.
Many of these questions might better be explored through a contested case proceeding, which is what environmental groups and the tribes have long sought. They recognize that their concerns have been dismissed as unwanted noise by a political process that had already made the decision, years ago, to advance the PolyMet project.
The courts are far less subject to such political pressures and it appears they are going to take their obligation seriously to conduct a thoughtful review of some of the issues the politicians preferred to sweep under the rug. That might not bode well for the project. Time will tell.