ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) — A controversial mining project in Northern Minnesota encountered a potentially fatal setback Tuesday when the Army Corps of Engineers revoked a critical Clean Water Act permit.
Officials at the Corps’ St. Paul district yanked the Clean Water Act Section 404 permit for the NorthMet copper-nickel mine, which has been the focus of years of litigation and protests by environmentalists, Native American tribes and outdoors enthusiasts concerned about the mine’s effects on waters in and around the popular Boundary Waters wilderness area and Lake Superior.
The mine’s Section 404 permit, which is required for projects with a risk of discharging dredged or fill material into U.S. waters, was first issued in 2019 but suspended at the request of the Environmental Protection Agency in March 2021, according to a statement from the Corps. The decision to revoke the permit came after a three-day hearing in May 2022 at which the Corps found mining company NewRange Copper Nickel (a successor to the mine’s original planned operator, PolyMet Mining, by way of a 2023 joint-venture deal) did not adequately show that it would ensure northern Minnesota waterways would be protected from mine runoff.
“The Corps is unable to include sufficient conditions in the… permit that would ensure compliance with the applicable downstream water requirements of the Band,” Corps officials wrote in the decision, signed by District Commander Colonel Eric Swenson. The “Band” is the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, a Native American band centered near the planned mine site that has opposed the mine at least since 2010 on the grounds that it would impede their treaty rights by damaging protected wetlands in treaty-ceded territory.
“We understand PolyMet claims to have completed new bounding calculations and that its approach was based on highly protective and unreasonable worst-case assumptions,” the Corps’ order said. “The rebuttal information that PolyMet has provided is not sufficient for the Corps to resolve the scientific differences of opinion that has been presented by the Band, EPA and other commenters on project discharges affecting the Band’s water quality standards.”
The Corps noted that NewRange could still submit a new permit application that met water quality requirements.
The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, a nonprofit which has provided legal representation for mine opponents and appealed several of the mine’s permits itself in state courts, issued a statement celebrating the decision.
“MCEA applauds today's decision, which is great news not just for downstream communities like the Band, but for all Minnesotans who value clean water,” the group's CEO Kathryn Hoffman said in the statement. “MCEA, the Band, and other environmental groups have spent years arguing in court that PolyMet's ill-conceived and untested proposal won’t protect our waters and should not be permitted. The Corp's decision now mandates what we've long sought: a reset on this entire proposal."
NewRange issued its own statement, saying it was "reviewing options" after the decision. "Today's decision by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is reversal of thoroughly reviewed water quality data that has been collected and assessed over the last decade," the statement said. "The Corps' decision is one that requires careful review, determined action, and further engagement with regulator and all key stakeholders.... The NorthMet Project is a well-considered and thoroughly evaluated development opportunity that will deliver high-demand minerals that are critical to the nation's and the world's transition to clean energy and clean mobility technologies, and the promise of jobs and significant economic benefits for northeastern Minnesota."
The planned mine, along with the similar Twin Metals project nearer to the Boundary Waters, has been a point of inter- and intra-party controversy in Minnesota politics throughout the 2010s. Republicans in the state have lined up behind mining more or less uniformly, but the state’s Democratic Farmer Labor party has seen sharp divides on the topic. The party once had a northern power base fueled by mineworkers in the state’s now much-diminished iron ore industry, and the promise of renewed mining has led some within the party to break with anti-mining environmentalists — and, in some cases, with the DFL itself.
Construction has not begun on either mine. Several other permits for the mine are in various stages of appeal in Minnesota courts; cases challenging the mine’s permits under the Clean Water Act and state air-pollution laws are both currently pending decisions from the Minnesota Supreme Court.
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