ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) – The Minnesota Court of Appeals set back a controversial mining project in the northern part of the state Monday when it ordered officials to hold hearings on three of the mine’s permits.
The court found that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, or DNR, should have held contested-case hearings on one permit for the Canadian company PolyMet’s NorthMet copper-nickel mine and two for dams involved in the mine project.
The DNR should have allowed the concerns of property owners downstream of the mine to be addressed at a hearing before it granted the permits, wrote Chief Judge Edward Cleary, a Democratic appointee.
“We conclude that the DNR’s decision denying a contested-case hearing was affected by an error of law in its overly narrow interpretation” of state law, the 36-page ruling states.
Cleary, writing for a three-judge panel, also noted that the permits were not given a definite end date, despite the explicit requirement of a state statute that mine permits have fixed terms.
The panel did throw the DNR and PolyMet one bone, finding no issue with the transfer of a permit from an earlier taconite processing plant for one of the mine’s tailings basins.
The proposed NorthMet mine would be situated in the state’s mineral-rich Iron Range, north of the tip of Lake Superior and the city of Duluth. It would be the first copper-nickel mine in Minnesota, and is one of two recently proposed copper-nickel projects in the region to draw criticism from clean water advocates. The proposed mine site lies in the watershed of the St. Louis River, which drains into Lake Superior after circumnavigating much of northeastern Minnesota.
PolyMet and industry advocates argue that the mine would bring economic growth to northern Minnesota, creating jobs and putting to use the world’s largest untapped copper-nickel deposit, the Duluth Complex. Mining has been a touchy issue in state politics for several years, pitting environmentalists in the blue state’s Democratic Farmer Labor party against the historically Democratic miners’ unions.
The DNR issued the permits in November 2018, denying petitions for hearings from five environmental groups and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, whose reservation is near the river. Those hearings must now be held, the appeals court ruled.
The petitioners took a moment to celebrate Monday’s ruling with a press conference in Minneapolis, but acknowledged their beef with PolyMet is far from settled.
“The wildlife and downstream communities of northeastern Minnesota can breathe a sigh of relief,” said Mark Fink, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’ll finally have a contested-case hearing to help resolve the very difficult questions that remain about this toxic mine proposal. The PolyMet mine poses a severe threat for generations to come, and we won’t stop fighting until these waters, wildlife and lands are protected for good.”
The environmental groups also announced a lawsuit in Ramsey County District Court alleging suppression of Environmental Protection Agency comments critical of the mine’s potential impact on water quality by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The groups also noted that challenges to the mine’s wetlands permit are pending.
The reaction was tempered on the other side, with PolyMet indicating there may be a long fight ahead.
“We obviously are disappointed in the court’s decision,” the company said in a statement on its website. “The administrative record for the NorthMet Project is built on a comprehensive process of scientific study, analysis and public review and comment established in state law, which we participated in for 15 years. We and the regulatory agencies have strictly followed that process.”
The company said it is looking at its options moving forward, including an appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court.
The DNR did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday afternoon.